Photo: Don Linkin

The name Ira Jackson Jr. sits high among the most prolific marksmen in this season’s BetVictor Isthmian Premier, but to think that just about adequately sums him up would be wildly off target. His Folkestone Invicta side are five points off leaders Worthing with a game in hand, while the 23-year-old has struck 21 goals in the league, with three more in cup competition.

Promotion is of course the principle aim for all concerned, and the Kent-raised forward is just as driven in his personal pursuit of progress, though he has been making some distinguished off-field moves for a little while now. Here’s a whole lot more about a highly promising young player, but a man with much more to share.

 

First off, Folkestone as a club, what stands out to you mostly about it and how would you describe it to an outsider?

Folkestone is a stable, family-based club. The team is a family. I played against Folkestone a few times before and I saw it was very consistent, with the same sort of players each season. When I came in, I got welcomed very well, I wasn’t treated like an outsider or anything. The second I came in I was taken under everybody’s wing really, and being a younger player than the majority, I was able to go to players for advice – Matt Newman, Nat Blanks, Josh Vincent, Kieron McCann, Ian Draycott and now Jerson dos Santos – and really learn as a player and improve. It’s the best club for a young player to be at, because you know that you’re gonna get an opportunity to grow and to play.

Why do you think it’s worked as well as it has for you personally this season? Is there anything in particular in what you’ve personally been doing, or in the way the team’s set up?

I just think it’s a perfect mix really. I’m with a manager (Neil Cugley) who trusts me and a team of players who know what I can do and trust that I’ll get results. Before, I’ve been at clubs where the manager may not have appreciated the sort of player that he had, the fact that I’m willing to work hard and I’ve got a good attitude, but I am a player who likes to do things on the ball and my first instinct isn’t to defend or tackle people, it’s ‘how can I entertain the fans, how can I score goals and win games?’ I think being under a manager and with a team that appreciates that and allows me to play consistently has been very important in my development. Previously, it’s always been in flashes, because I haven’t been given the chance to play ten, 15, 20 games on the spin. If you’re one of the youngest forwards in the team and you have one bad game, or you don’t score, you’re out, but that hasn’t happened at Folkestone.

What about the kind of characters in the dressing room, who are the ones who lead it, who keeps it entertaining etc.?

The Hornchurch game where we were down to ten men, every player had to be a leader, because we had to take control of our role and do that little bit extra. I think everybody’s a joker, we don’t really have one little group that does the majority. Callum Davies is probably one of the biggest jokers in the changing room; he’s just very funny, jovial. I think it’s all just very much a team thing, and that’s great to have, especially when you’ve got a captain like Callum who isn’t so serious that you can’t have a laugh and a joke with him. There’s no real hierarchy where you can’t talk to players who are older than you, or you can’t tell someone they misplaced a pass or something like that. We’re all unified and trying to get the results together, because everyone realises that in order to do it, you’re gonna need everyone. It’s the best changing room I think I’ve ever been in, apart from probably at Burton Albion when I was younger; in terms of men’s football, Folkestone’s the best changing room I’ve been in.

For anyone who doesn’t know you personally, what kind of personality would you say you have?

I’d say I’m a nice, approachable person, good character, and I think that’s formed around my faith as a believer, as a Christian. I have very strong morals and beliefs, and I don’t really budge when it comes to them, but I’m not the sort of person that treats people differently just because they don’t think the same way I do. I’m very accepting and accommodating in understanding that every individual is different; every manager’s gonna be different, every teammate. For me, it’s being able to work with whoever, whether it’s in football, whether it’s in business, in education, but also being able to give your best as well.

You did mention the manager, what have the conversations been like with Neil since you arrived and what does he ask from you personally?

The manager’s always been honest with me, and probably the first I could say that of, of the many managers I’ve had in non-league. I was very hesitant initially, before I signed, because obviously every manager tells you they’re gonna be honest with you, but that’s not always the case. The greatest thing when Cugs told me he would be honest with me was the fact that I knew he had players that had played under him for a lot of years, so he had to be doing something right for people to be under his management for so long. That was one of the biggest things I considered when I signed, and also just the opportunities that he gives to young players and players in general really; Ade Yusuff (now at Dover), Johan ter Horst (current Folkestone player who joined Hull City in 2014), Harry Smith (now at Northampton Town). People like that who have been able to come through Folkestone, develop and then be able to push on. He was kind of on the same page as me in terms of what I needed going forward, because the reason I didn’t sign for half of the other clubs that were interested was I didn’t wanna just sign for anyone. I wanted to make sure it was a club that I could perform at, grow at, and actually play for. He was honest with me and said ‘at first, you’re not gonna play every week, because I’ve got a settled 11, but when you get your chance, make sure you take it. I’m very loyal to the players I’ve got in the team, so once you’re in, if you’re performing, you’ll stay in.’ It was good to hear that from a manager, but not just to hear it, to actually see it in the flesh.

It’s a clothing brand but with a lot more to it – tell me about your venture Preach Christ London and how it first came about?

In 2017/18, I was just looking at ways that I could share my faith with people without going up to them and being very overt, as you can see sometimes when people like to talk about God. I wanted to be quite creative and have a way that people would ask me questions instead of me always going to people and talking to them about it. I think it is very important to be creative and allow people to ask questions at their own speed rather than ramming everything down their throat. I just decided to make a hoodie, started wearing it and a lot of people started asking me questions about what it was about, whose brand it was etc. I didn’t really have a brand, I just wanted to find a way to share my faith and to be outspoken, because we play football, we go to work, go to school, and sometimes we don’t get the opportunity to spend time talking to people face to face. With the hoodie, it was just an opportunity for me to project my faith and what I believe without necessarily needing to corner people and spend half an hour with them, because you don’t always get that time.

I didn’t really have a clue in terms of how to make it a business or make it a brand, so I sold a few now and again to people, whatever colour they wanted, and eventually it came a time where I felt it was something everybody needed access to. That’s when it became the brand and I started to get loads and loads of visions and ideas about other stuff we could do for non-Christians as well, in a way that would relate to them more than just Preach Christ. That’s why I’m finding more ways to put Christ’s message onto merch that doesn’t necessarily look overtly Christian. That’s the way we’re continuing to develop with the latest range we’ve got, with gym wear, some jumpers and oversized tees called Face Your Impossible. The emphasis behind it is you go through life and there’s things that you look at as really impossible and you can’t achieve them, but in our faith we believe that nothing is impossible to God, so it’s important that you go and face that impossible. We’ve got a lot of projects under the banner, it’s not just the clothing brand, so there’s a lot of stuff helping creatives to use their skills in their field to build their exposure so by the time they finish uni, they know they’ve got three to four years’ experience working with a brand on several projects. We’re just about helping people to grow and to know about Christ really.

How much personal input into the designs do you have?

The majority of the stuff is, but not everything is designed by me. I’ve kind of moved away from the design side now because we’ve built a team of young people who are really into design, textiles, drawing, painting, stuff like that. Everything up to the new stuff we’re bringing out on the 29th of February has been designed by me, and the Face Your Impossible one was my idea, but the actual design was done by one of our new designers, and that was her first project with us. She did a really, really good job in designing it in a way that was modern and also a little bit tongue in cheek as well.

Whereabouts have you grown up and is the club very local to you?

I live in Kent, I was born in Kent, but my family’s all from the Midlands, and when I was younger I played for Burton and Derby, but the majority of my football has been down in Kent. I don’t live too far from the ground. I’ve grown up in Ashford and Folkestone; I lived in Folkestone first, so it’s always good to play for your hometown club! So I’m a Kent lad, with Midlands roots.

With training and games, your business venture, and anything else, how does a typical week go for you in terms of routine?

I train every day, so gym session and training session on the pitch, and whatever training session we have at Folkestone. That’s usually five to six days a week, including a game day; Sunday and Wednesday is usually a recovery day because of Saturday/Tuesday games. I’m also currently studying a degree with Open University, so I’m in my last year of that. The business takes up time mostly on Wednesdays. Sunday, other than my recovery from Saturday, is church all day really.

You’ve spent some time at Dover previously, what was the arrangement and what did you get from the experience?

I was contacted by someone who’s connected to Dover, right at the end of last season, with regard to going into training and seeing what it was like. I was interested in it because I’d been at Dover before, and now it was under new management. My mindset was to go to Dover, get experience training with and against those players, and then go back to Folkestone for this season. I went to Dover, did well, but they felt I would probably be a squad player, so going back to Folkestone was ideal. I wanted to stay at Folkestone anyway, because I knew that given a full pre-season, I would be able to deliver and help Folkestone to win the league – that was the aim and still is. It was a good experience at Dover, with some players I knew from before, and some others who had come down from the League, just seeing where I was at technically, physically, and getting used to the demands they would have at a club like Dover and with a manager like Hessy (Andy Hessenthaler) and with Nicky Southall and Darren Hare. I really enjoyed it, it was a good experience for me to say ‘okay, you say you wanna go to pro level but can you actually cope with it? Can you cope against someone who’s been a league or two leagues above, and how do you beat those defenders?’

Most importantly, back at Folkestone, is there a team DJ?

It’s kind of rotated between Finn O’Mara, Jerson dos Santos and the odd occasion you’ll get Matt Newman who’ll jump in if he’s not happy with it!

If you could put something of your own on there, not necessarily for the lads but just personal choice, what would you go with?

I’ve got quite a few because I’ve got a playlist of like up-tempo, trap music, hip-hop, all that sort of stuff. Christian hip-hop, which is really good, and it doesn’t have loads of profanity in it as well, so it’s better for me because I can actually understand what the person’s trying to say and listening to it intellectually, rather than just listening to F-bombs all the time! There’s people like Aha Gazelle, 1K Phew, Lecrae’s really good, nobigdyl, Aaron Cole, Derek Minor, BrvndonP. That’s the stuff I like to listen to because it’s very different in terms of lyrical content, but it’s still the same in terms of the beat, the way the song flows, wordplay etc.

Lastly, from these next few years with football, is it a case of ‘I’m focused, I’ve got a plan to do this, get here, do that,’ or be more focused on enjoyment?

The start of the season, my most important thing was consistency, with one team. I was very adamant that no matter how well I did, I wasn’t gonna move from Folkestone during the season, because I needed consistency. I’m still here in February even though there’s been quite a few offers from higher and interest from the League. I wanted to make sure that this season, I had a full season somewhere, rather than having a good five games, someone comes in and I just move on. I think consistency is the word for this season; in club, performance, fitness, and results and goals. I would say the next few years is about progress. How am I progressing as a player? How am I progressing as a man in football?

Interview by @chris_brookes

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