Published: 06:00, 18 December 2020
Ira Jackson’s Football League adventure is off and running after scoring twice in a week.
The former Folkestone winger came off the bench to give Grimsby the lead on his League 2 debut against Mansfield last Saturday.
His reward was a first start at Southend on Tuesday night and Jackson struck again for Ian Holloway’s side.
He’s had to be patient after jumping three levels from Isthmian Premier Invicta, with his only previous Mariners appearances both coming in the Football League Trophy.
Holloway suggested going on loan but Jackson, who’s also played for Whitstable, Dover, Margate and Sittingbourne, was determined to keep working hard and wait for his chance under a manager he says is the best outside the Premier League.
“I’m driven, I work hard, I want results and as long as I get an opportunity, I always look to repay whoever’s given me that opportunity,” said Jackson.
“Neil Cugley gave me a chance at Folkestone and I scored 33 in 50 from the right wing and now the gaffer here has got two in two out of me.
“He wanted me to go out on loan but I wanted to be around and keep learning and I felt like I could help the team.
“I don’t care about the level, I believe I can still deliver because I have the drive, the ability and the work rate that’s going to push me to get in positions when I probably shouldn’t get there.
“It’s been a waiting game. It’s taken until December to get my debut but I’ve got it now, and my full debut as well, and I’ve scored in both games.
“I said to people I’m going to score on my debut but to actually go and do it is a different story.
“You can’t plan how you’re going to feel but it was a great feeling to score and put us 1-0 up.
“At that stage I’m thinking if I can get another goal we’ve won this game and I’ve set myself up to get another chance in the next game.
“We drew 1-1 but I was over the moon to score and I was excited to get my full debut against Southend and score again.”
Invicta boss Neil Cugley, assistant Roland Edge and player-coach Micheal Everitt deserve credit for Jackson’s pair of close-range finishes.
And the 23-year-old is in no doubt his experience in the Isthmian Premier with Folkestone has helped him cope with League 2.
Jackson added: “It’s funny because last season, Cugs, Mev and Edgy always said to me you’ll get an extra five goals if you get in the box and get tap-ins.
“I played wide so I didn’t really value tap-ins but the last two here I’ve played up front so I’ve literally taken what they said to me last season and put that into practice.
“We haven’t scored many tap-ins at Grimsby and so I’ve tried to make sure I’m in the right place all the time because you never know when the ball could pop out off the goalkeeper.
“The pace of the game is different but I was in a phenomenal team at Folkestone and some of the football we played you’d love to see in the Football League. Cugs got us playing vintage, Rolls-Royce football.
“The difference going into League 2 is you don’t have many teams that play that way. It’s more of a dogfight in that sense but playing against teams in non-league who fight has prepared me for that.
“The first two games I’ve come into have been against teams in and around us and they’ve just got no-nonsense defenders so I’ve needed to be more ferocious when it comes to my pressure and my running and holding the ball up.
“I personally think the jump is only big if you’ve not been preparing yourself to go there.
“For me, the past few years while I was doing my degree, I decided not to get a job because I wanted to be a professional footballer.
“I said to myself the only way I was ever going to achieve that was by training full-time so I’ve been doing that since I left Dover and even before I went there.
“I wanted to make sure that when I went into a club, I didn’t need to acclimatise to training every day and being fit.
“Almost everything I’ve done since I was 16 has prepared me perfectly for this opportunity and I’m taking it now, which makes the jump look even ‘easier’ than it should do.”
There was plenty of interest in Jackson last season but he told Folkestone he would only leave for the Football League.
That opportunity presented itself when Grimsby, a club who’ve been as high as the Championship, came calling in the summer.
The chance to play for Holloway added to the appeal and Jackson is thrilled to be working with a man who took both Blackpool and Crystal Palace into the Premier League.
He said: “It was interesting because you go from this guy who’ve you seen on the telly and watched his Blackpool team and his QPR and Millwall teams and you’ve seen his interviews and his funny comments, and then he’s ringing you up saying he wants to sign you.
“When I met him, I was thinking this is someone who’s managed in the Premier League and he’s given me his professional stamp of approval.
“He was saying I think I can make you into a better player, I want to give you a chance to play in the Football League.
“He spoke about his vision and plan for me as a player and what I could bring to the team.
“It was a great experience to meet him and now to work with him.
“He’s himself and that’s all you can ask from somebody.
“It’s new territory for him in League 2 because he’s used to higher levels and three quarters of the squad this season are players he hasn’t worked with before.
“Everybody has to adjust to the way he gives information and he’s got to adjust to the way we respond.
“I came here to work with the manager who I believe is the best and most experienced outside the Premier League.
“I know he’s got the keys to help me develop as a player and push on.
“I’m learning every day and to be with someone with that level of experience as a manager, and as a player, is good.
“There’s loads of experienced players who have played higher levels and have that extra bit of knowledge and wisdom to help us players from non-league develop quicker.”
The move to Grimsby means Jackson is living away from home for the first time.
His family helped him prepare and Mariners fans have made him welcome.
“I’m living in digs and it’s been great, I love it,” said Jackson.
“I speak to my family every day and it’s not been much of a change because I was used to travelling for football when I was younger.
“My mum was kind of preparing me before I got a move, saying you need to learn this and that because you’ll be away soon, without knowing when or where.
“She got me ready to be living on my own, away from family and friends.
“I’m in a lovely area, which makes it even better, and Grimsby is a family town where everybody looks after people.
“I’ve been welcomed as one of their own, which is great.
“I love the Grimsby fans. They’ve been fighting for me to play and every game I want to repay the faith they've shown in me by scoring goals and getting wins for the team.
“I love being able to connect with the fans. Social media is good for that. You get the chance to respond to everybody because I do genuinely appreciate their support.
“I had it with Folkestone fans last season and they’re still supporting me and checking on my journey.”