Jack Iredale overcomes hurdles to succeed as Cambridge United’s wizard of Oz
Jack Iredale’s path to becoming a professional in the English Football League has more than just an air of Roy of the Rovers about it.
A striking modesty and hard-working attitude have underpinned his performances since joining Cambridge United last summer, and an adaptability on the pitch – he has already lined up at left-back, centre-back and left midfield – is probably born from the way that he pursued a career in football.
It is a tale of perseverance to overcome adversity and setbacks that include diabetes, three ACL injuries as a teenager and moving away from his family twice to make his dreams become reality.
That is without taking into consideration that he grew up in New Zealand and Australia, where football – or soccer – would play second fiddle to a range of other sports. Home as a child was Hamilton, on the North Island of New Zealand, where rugby union was the hotbed and the Chiefs were the heroes.
He did play rugby, but it was the round ball that piqued Iredale’s interest most.
“There were six of us at lunch time that would just play football – everyone else had a rugby ball,” explains the 24-year-old.
“I went home one day aged six, and said to my mum that the local team was having soccer try-outs and I wanted to go and play.
“My mum had no idea that I played, she just thought I would be useless at it really but I wanted to play football and she wasn’t going to stop that, so she took me down.
“I was half-decent, and from then on I just stuck at it.”
It should perhaps be no surprise as Iredale is of rich sporting pedigree.
His father, Paul, played schoolboy rugby for England, while his mother, Fiona, is an Olympian.
She represented New Zealand in judo at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, reaching the quarter-finals, won a bronze medal in the 2000 Commonwealth judo tournament and was team manager of multiple New Zealand and Australian world championship teams.
“From as young as I can remember, I did judo with her – I started when I was three and stopped when I was 14,” says Iredale.
“I’ve always been quite good at sport but you’re never going to get anywhere by just being good – you need to put the graft in.
“Dad had always told people that I was better at rugby than I was at football, and mum said I was better at judo than I was at football as well, but for me, I always wanted to play football and they weren’t going to stand in my way.
“There will always be knockbacks, but they have always helped me figure out that stuff.”
The family moved to Perth, Western Australia when Iredale was 10 as Fiona got a job as a lecturer in exercise and sports science at Edith Cowan University.
Iredale credits the relocation as opening the door to becoming a footballer, given the standard of coaching and the pathway to show what was achievable.
His first club was ECU Joondalup, and by the time he stopped playing rugby and judo aged 14, he was attached to the National Training Centre for the best players in the region. After catching the eye at a national showcase, Iredale was offered a scholarship.
“They hand out 10 scholarships a year where you leave home, go and live in Canberra, and learn how to be a professional footballer,” he explains.
“You’re still doing your schooling, but you’re doing full-time training, you’ve got your gym, your recovery areas, nutritionists you can talk to, dieticians, psychs. Literally, anything you could possibly need or want as a pro footballer you had access to.”
Even for a teenager, there was little upheaval in the transition.
It may have been a four-hour flight from his Perth home, but Iredale was helped to adjust by a foster family.
That he could take it all in his stride no doubt came through the upbringing that allowed him to chase his dreams, and he had already had to show a strength of character with another challenge.
“I think I developed a bit of resilience when I was diagnosed with diabetes when I was 12,” says Iredale, who is a type one diabetic.
“I think that made me mature a little bit quicker in terms of responsibility and all of that stuff.
“I had a couple of friends that I knew were type one diabetic before I was diagnosed so when I did get it, I looked at them and they were both national champions in judo so I had seen that if you manage your diabetes correctly then you can still be the best.”
The ACL injuries were harder to overcome though.
The first two occurred while Iredale was based in Canberra, which restricted his appearances across the two years.
The setting of the Australian Institute of Sport was the ideal location to rehab after the first injury, but his scholarship ran out after the second ACL.
Iredale returned to Western Australia and joined the Perth Glory youth team to continue his rehab only to suffer a third injury. Undeterred, he got back to full fitness and went on to get called up permanently to the first team.
“There were some really good players there but at the same time I was desperate to play and because of the standard of players that were there and the environment, I was struggling to get that contract.” says Iredale. “I thought ‘if I’m going to make it, I’m going to have to leave and look somewhere else’ – that’s where Scotland came into it.”
Iredale had returned to ECU Joondalup, the team of his youth whose products have included former Middlesbrough player Rhys Williams and Swindon Town’s Jordan Lyon, and was studying for a sports science degree and working part-time in Australia’s equivalent of JD Sports.
But a family friend, former St Mirren and Motherwell midfielder Steven McGarry, emailed the then St Mirren coach in the summer of 2017 to suggest he may have a player it was worth taking a look at.
The reply on the Thursday night was to invite Iredale to pre-season training, but that started on the following Monday.
“I went into work, quit my job, booked a flight for the Saturday, jumped on a plane, landed on Sunday afternoon and was in pre-season training with St Mirren on Monday,” says Iredale.
“I was just trying to get my foot in the door really.”
As an outsider, it seems like a massive gamble to leave everything behind on the whim of a gamble.
“I could always go back and get a similar job if it didn’t work out, but if I didn’t try I would have hated it for the rest of my life,” he says.
“It was a little bit of risk, you’re paying a lot of money to go over there – but it was a chance. I wasn’t going to get that chance at Glory at the time, and I thought ‘why not?’.
“If you don’t grow up in the UK, you need to try to get over somehow. I missed three really crucial years during my rehab – 16, 17 and 19 is when a lot of players are getting their first pro contract.
“I was stuck in the gym trying to get my knee better. I was always playing catch-up and I think that’s why I was so desperate to try to make something of it.”
There was no contract offer from St Mirren, but he caught the eye of Greenock Morton when playing against them in a friendly.
He was invited for a trial, and that materialised into a six-month contract at Greenock Morton.
Iredale went out on loan to Queen’s Park, but was then given a contract extension at Cappielow Park. His two-year stay came to an end when he clinched a move to Carlisle United, and a year later he arrived at Cambridge United.
There are points in that career trajectory when it must have been easier for Iredale to consider giving up hope of becoming a pro.
But the family grounding gave him the strength to carry on.
“They were really supportive, I always knew I had them to lean on if anything went wrong,” he says.
“They helped me through everything, and I was always determined to make it as a pro footballer – and thankfully it has all worked out and I’m enjoying myself.”
It does illustrate a mental strength and determined character, traits that have already been evident on the pitch for the U’s.
“I’ve always wanted to win; I’ve always hated losing,” he said.
“Growing up doing martial arts, it’s a cliche, but it has certain morals and characteristics attached to it that helps you with the mentality side of things. Growing up in rugby, I was built like a string bean when I was 12/13 so I was getting battered about there but I was always having fun doing that.
“Being diabetic as well and having to deal with that on the side, it all adds up. When you get setbacks, they’re not going to last forever and I’m lucky I can play football, so that’s always on my mind.”
Managing diabetes is a daily task for Iredale, but it is just part of life.
He tests his sugar levels up to seven times a day, and on a matchday even more, and gives himself insulin based on what he is eating and doing.
“It sounds really complicated from the outside looking in, but once you’ve been living with it for 11 years, it’s just another part of you really,” he says.
“I always carry a bottle of Lucozade at training with me, or leave it by the pitch for games. You have to keep a close eye on it for sport because you can’t perform at the elite level if you’re not doing that. It did take me a little bit to figure out – I’m still learning about it to be honest; it develops and evolves with you as well.”
Iredale’s game is also evolving, in just his second season in the EFL, and he is thriving in the atmosphere and environment that has been created at the U’s.
“Being able to play football as my living, I can’t really think of a better job than that,” he says.
The dream is far from complete though. Having represented Australia at under-17s, scoring on his debut and playing all over the world before his first ACL injury, it remains an ambition to get back into the national team.
If Iredale goes on to achieve that – and given the determination, no-one would dare bet against it – then it would complete the Roy of the Rovers story.