Why Celtic may regret giving up on Jackson Irvine

Ross County’s summer signing from Parkhead has emerged as one of the better players in the Ladbrokes Premiership, writes Craig Fowler
Jackson Irvine (right) celebrates his opener against Inverness CT on Tuesday night. Picture: SNSJackson Irvine (right) celebrates his opener against Inverness CT on Tuesday night. Picture: SNS
Jackson Irvine (right) celebrates his opener against Inverness CT on Tuesday night. Picture: SNS

AFTER the full-time whistle went on Ross County’s 2-1 League Cup quarter-finals victory over local rivals Inverness CT, the BBC director in charge of the broadcast called for a close up shot of County midfielder Jackson Irvine as he celebrated with his team-mates.

The Australian had not only headed County into the lead shortly before half-time, he’d played a starring role in the visitors’ victory, which sent them through to their first ever League Cup semi-final. Even though there wasn’t enough time for commentator Liam McLeod to eulogise such a dominant performance, the pictures told their own story: this was the hero, this was the man worth remembering above all others from an action packed 90 minutes.

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Due to the insular nature of football - where fans are likely to recognise the face of a star player on their own team more than a distant cousin, but wouldn’t know anyone from another club unless they came equipped with a handy name badge – even die-hard Celtic fans would have been forgiven for failing to place the prominent cheekbones and signature ponytail of their former youth player.

The 22-year-old spent five years in Glasgow’s East End, making one solitary appearance as a half-time substitute in a 2-2 draw with Hibernian in 2012. After failing to break into the team again for the rest of the 2012/13 campaign, he moved onto Kilmarnock on loan the following season.

The first six months of his Ayrshire adventure were a disaster. Irvine started the season at centre back where he was hopelessly out of his depth as Killie made a tough start to the campaign under Allan Johnston. He would spend time at right-back, right-midfield and, bizarrely, left-midfield within that time, never looking like amounting to much more than big laddie who could shift a bit.

Then Irvine got a long-awaited run in his natural position and things began to click into place. His athleticism made up for a lack of nous and he was one of Kilmarnock’s stronger performers down the stretch as they narrowly avoided the relegation play-offs with a final day win over Hibernian.

Irvine returned to Celtic but was out on loan once more, this time to Ross County. The side built in the summer of 2014 by Derek Adams was a shambles and the team would only really recover in February, where they went on an almost inexplicable winning run and comfortably avoided relegation. In such a Jekyll & Hyde campaign, Irvine was perhaps the only first-team member who could claim positive consistency over the course of the season.

That took us to this summer. Celtic offered the player a new deal, but the player himself insisted it was merely to protect their asset as they sought a compensation fee from any club wishing to sign him. “I’m sure you’re familiar with the compensation laws regarding players under 23, so Celtic did offer me a new contract,” said Irvine back in June. “But it was essentially just as insurance so that, when I did leave, they were liable to claim their compensation money.”

Promising young players tend not to leave Celtic and join any other club in the Scottish leagues, so Irvine’s version of events seems likely. But were Celtic too quick to dismiss his talents? It’s not hyperbole to suggest that, come the end of the season, if he maintains his form from the opening three months, Irvine could be in contention for a player of the year nomination.

His development from those raw, early days at Kilmarnock has been astounding. Now he’s close to the complete midfielder. He’s bulked out with age, filling out his 6ft 3in frame without losing any of the athleticism, making him a complete nightmare for any opponent trying to get past him, or stop him, in close quarters.

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His gallops up and down the park are a joy to watch, one of the best sights in the league at present, mainly because when he charges forward with the ball the spectator knows something good is going to come from it. That’s because the most impressive part of his development has been with the football. His touch, passing and awareness in possession have improved tenfold. There’s now a subtle element to his game to go along with the all-action style.

What’s particularly exciting for County supporters, and the player himself, is that Irvine is still only 22. He’s going to get better. Which, given Ronny Deila’s willingness to give young players a chance and his fondness for cherry picking the best of the rest in Scottish football, begs the question of why Celtic didn’t make a better case for him to stay.

That’s not to suggest he would be a first-team regular at Celtic Park, but his performances this season have indicated he would be more than good enough to back-up Scott Brown and Nir Bitton. While not having the ability of either of those two, he still shares some of that pair’s stronger attributes – the dynamism of Brown and the stature of Bitton. He would have been a comfortable fit in the current team if given a chance.

Perhaps it was a case of out of sight and, therefore, out of mind. Perhaps Deila just didn’t rate him. Whatever the reason, it may turn out better for the player to be able to start every week, keeping his confidence high and enabling him to develop his skills further.

Make no mistake about it, in the confines of the Scottish Premiership, Jackson Irvine is a star in the making, if not one already. And if his football abilities continue to increase at the rapid pace they have these past couple of years, he can be a star at a much higher level in the future.