In two years Jackson Irvine has become central to the fortunes of iconic German side St Pauli – on and off the field.
St Pauli went looking for a footballer but ended up falling in love with a human being.
The fact that Jackson Irvine has turned into an inspirational figure on and off the field at a football club once dubbed the world’s coolest for its proudly inclusive and progressive core just makes this a better and better tale.
Especially when Oke Göttlich, the president of St Pauli, a club famous for attracting free thinkers among their fans and their players, tells KEEPUP that Irvine stands as one the most thoughtful and open-minded of them all.
This is when it starts to make sense that this Socceroo is in the form of his life, that his club are top of 2. Bundesliga and that the player himself has never been happier.
“A human chose a football club, a football club likes his attitude on the pitch and off the pitch, and it’s all fitting,” Göttlich says, and the pride in the voice of a fan of St Pauli for three decades is unmistakable.
As Irvine and the rest of the Socceroos squad prepare in Kuwait for a FIFA Men’s World Cup qualifier with Palestine next week, there is much to occupy his thoughts inside football and out. Newly installed as president of the player’s union in Australia and sitting on the board of its global counterpart, he’s captain of a team sitting top of Germany’s second division – immersed in its history and its identity and venerated by its fans.
“He’s one of the most diverse, open players I ever met during my nearly already 10 years (as president) at St Pauli and even 30 years as a fan of St Pauli,” says Göttlich.
“In saying this, at St Pauli we are always open for very diverse players who are open-minded and who have a standpoint, a social or political standpoint, a cultural standpoint.
“But Jackson is extraordinary in a way that he incorporates it on so many levels, (not just) on the football pitch. (He is) getting to know different cultures, being Australian but also being most of the time in the UK (during his career) and now being in Hamburg at St Pauli, which is a diverse quarter with the harbour where lots of international influences are coming in, lots of different cultures are coming in for hundreds of years.”
This is the key to understanding why Irvine, having quietly accrued more than 50 caps for his country, has finally stepped into the limelight. A footballer never seemingly covetous of fame has found an identity that couldn’t suit him better.
Driving St Pauli forward from midfield in the pursuit of promotion, while sitting happily in the vanguard of footballers speaking out on issues of social justice, are all part of it. And none of it happened by accident.
There’s an irony that Irvine’s last significant footballing home was at Hull City on the north-east coast of England, on the edge of the North Sea whose freezing waters also flow through the River Elbe in north Germany and into the port of Hamburg – home to two football clubs, one of them called St Pauli.
For hundreds of years Hamburg’s status as a major commercial port brought in those international influences that Göttlich references, and at the centre of the city’s cultural scene is its famous (and infamous) Reeperbahn district – through the streets of which Irvine walks from his apartment to St Pauli’s home games at the club’s iconic Millerntor-Stadion.
This community is the whole point of St Pauli, at least since the mid-80s when a group of fans began to grow from the city’s alternative subcultures and forge an identity proudly cosmopolitan and inclusive.
As that identity deepened, the club’s members passed a formal set of principles for it to operate by in 2009, embedding social responsibility and tolerance into its statutes. The club and its fans have taken strong stances on human rights, refugees, LGBTQI+ issues and even workers’ rights in Qatar during the World Cup.
And into that club walked Jackson Irvine two and a half years ago. The way Göttlich tells it, the alliance was not a coincidence – but still the way the Socceroo has thrived in an environment where he can play with painted nails or drink coffee in one of his many vintage football shirts has taken everyone by surprise.
“It’s all about marketing!” jokes Göttlich. “No, not at all, but this is exactly what you could easily think while seeing Jackson and St Pauli being a perfect fit.
“But, you know, life is not that easy that you can draw everything on a board and say, yeah, we want a player who has who has pink hair and black fingernails.
“This is not the way we scout because our coach or our sports manager would not at all look for players who would only fit on that cultural or marketing level at all. Because everything (about) St Pauli has been created by the fans back in the mid-eighties.
“There was no marketing plan (like) hey, let’s create a club which is owned by the community, which stands for diversity and against racism and anti-semitism.
“It’s a club born by the fans and when a player is also fitting in a way to the quarter (of the city), to the club, that’s an extra bonus. What we were looking for was a defensive midfielder who is putting all his energy on the pitch and this is definitely what Jackson is doing.”
The synchronicity of it all is the source of much of that energy, Göttlich believes, and Irvine himself told KEEPUP earlier this year that his happiness off the field was undoubtedly translating on the pitch.
“When it comes to the football player, Jackson Irvine, it’s very interesting,” says Göttlich. “I don’t know whether he was really thinking about stopping playing football (before St Pauli) because I haven’t talked to him at length about it, but I had the feeling he was at least thinking about how can a career go on by being on loan at many clubs, not really being seen in the UK.
“And so I think he made a decision together with his agent to really listen to his cultural (feelings) and (look for) a club he could stand for. They were thinking and speaking then about St Pauli and he knew us as a youth player, at least to a certain extent, when he was here with Celtic playing a trial game, I think when he was 17 or something.
“It was really like, ok, for this club, I could potentially bring all I have on to the pitch and I think this is an important part knowing Jackson a little bit better (now). He needs to be committed, from hair to toe, for a club he is playing for.
“I don’t want to over emphasize this but I don’t know whether he would be able to play at a ‘normal’ club in the same way and playing the same role as he is doing here at St Pauli.
“I think this is why this is matching so well together and I would say we all like each other on all different parts very well, and this is why he is so popular here at St Pauli… and not only because he has coloured hair and nails.”
Two years ago Irvine told KEEPUP about the unique nature of playing for St Pauli, of living among the fans and embracing that rather than – at many other clubs – keeping them at arms length. There have been some emotional extremes since: St Pauli were top of 2.Bundesliga for much of that season until their form collapsed spectacularly and promotion disappeared. But none of that has wearied the experience of living amidst the club culture.
“The community of St Pauli makes it so easy for people (players) to be part of it… people (here) see football, not as a kind of sport where there are only millionaires or nearly millionaires running around and driving their big cars to the training center,” says Göttlich.
“For our fans, it’s like, if you mingle, if you live in the quarter, if you say hello, and if you’re just being a normal kind of guy, you have already a huge impact.
“But it’s also not easy, and I can understand it, for players who don’t have a self-confidence and such a strong attitude like Jackson has, being secure and also making statements on some political issues when it comes to sport politics.
“He’s been the captain of the Australian team, but also is sitting on (the) international player board (FIFPro). Of course, he’s raising his voice on diversity matters as far as possible.
“There are other players, of course, who don’t have that self-confidence, and fear to make political statements because they think then they potentially can’t go to another club or the fans of another club would completely see it different than fans at St Pauli see it.
“But this is what makes Jackson so original and authentic that he knows that he is more or less at home.”
This may yet turn into a pivotal season for player and club, with St Pauli top of the league and unbeaten through 13 games but uncomfortably aware of how a promotion push can fall apart, based on very recent history. Irvine told KEEPUP last year of how hard it was to focus on Australia’s World Cup play-offs in the wake of that professional catastrophe – but the difference now may be in how Irvine himself then went on to perform in Qatar.
“I think Jackson came back after the World Cup even stronger, with much more self confidence because of the stage he was performing at the World Cup, which was a good World Cup for Australia,” says Göttlich.
“He already was a major (player) but how major he came back and how strong as a leader he can be. And this is, of course, very important for us.”
That influence extends to Metcalfe, whose powerful performance against Bangladesh on Thursday night highlighted his own surge since leaving Melbourne City last year and joining Irvine at St Pauli.
“Jackson’s role is also important for a younger Australian player who is more or less, at least on the pitch, someone who is very similar to Jackson,” Göttlichsays of Metcalfe.
“(That’s) in terms of the positioning, being also able to score goals and a fantastic box to box (player) like Jackson, being very aggressive on the defensive part but also (full of) running and having lots of endurance but also being dangerous in front of the goal.
“So Jackson is a kind of older brother – but also how the coach and and our sport manager are working on the development of a young player like Connor Metcalfe is amazing.
“What kind of jumps Connor made in the last year is unbelievable. He’s a really great player and so I think and hope that he will stay as long as Jackson Irvine is staying at Saint Pauli!”