Rejected by clubs as a schoolboy for being too small, he spent five years working as an insurance broker before getting his big break with Everton.
Even his ascent to the ranks of football management was slow – not like those who hang up their boots and simply walk straight into the job.
Irvine spent 14 years learning his trade the hard way, as a youth team coach or assistant manager, and finally stepped up to the plate with Preston North End three years ago.
Now, after one of the craziest sackings in football, he is charged with the responsibility of saving Sheffield Wednesday from the drop.
At 51, Irvine is no spring chicken. With prevailing winds and patience from his chairmen, another decade in management might be as far as it goes. However, after his late surge, the extended education should stand him in good stead.
It is 8.30 on a bitterly cold Thursday morning and Irvine has been sat behind his desk at Wednesday's training ground for nearly an hour. The laptop is open, the mobile phone is flashing and a pile of fresh letters await replies.
Since landing his new role six weeks ago, Irvine has been living out of a suitcase. His wife Lynn and their three children are still living in Southport.
A self-confessed workaholic, Irvine was cheekily dubbed 'Father Ted' by the Wednesday supporters due to his likeness to the television priest. Unlike Ted, this man doesn't believe in a 'day of rest.'
"I have never been afraid of hard work and I am happy to work long hours," he says.
"I have known what it is like to work in a full-time job, study for a degree, and play football at the same time, so I appreciate how lucky I am to be involved in football and that probably explains my work ethic.
"Although I was very fortunate as a player, I didn't feel I achieved everything I could. I never got any caps for Scotland, although I was close. Just before Jock Stein died, he was looking at me and Graeme Sharp very closely."
While striker Sharp went on to play for Scotland in the 1986 World Cup, Irvine's career started to move in another direction. Unwilling to play second fiddle to the blossoming Trevor Steven, he quit Merseyside and dropped down a level to play for Crystal Palace in the Second Division.
"Those were three really good years for me at Everton. I went from playing against people I had never heard of (as an amateur with Scottish club Queens Park) to playing against people who had played in the World Cup.
"We reached two Cup finals in 1984 but the replay in the Milk Cup final against Liverpool was my final game. I was carrying a knee injury and had to have an operation.
"Having been a late starter, I didn't want to sit around and wait and be patient. As a winger, I thought if I can't learn from Steve Coppell (who had moved into management with Palace), I won't learn from anyone."
Irvine played more games for Palace (over 100) than for any of other clubs but it was his next move, a return north of the border to join beaten UEFA Cup finalists Dundee United, that shaped his destiny.
Placed among a group of players who were also considering future careers in coaching, Irvine began to mature.
"The best thing of all about that move was that it was a really good coaching club. A lot of players were at a certain age and starting to look towards their next careers. It was different because we always talked football when we were out. We had a lot of great discussions about that – rather than what I had experienced at other clubs which was more a case of 'putting the balls away'."
Paul Sturrock, Billy Kirkwood, Maurice Malpas, Paul Hegarty and Jim McInally were just some of the Tannadice 'tacticians' who progressed into management. Sturrock, of course, spent two years at Hillsborough.
When Irvine, then 31, left Scotland again to join Blackburn Rovers, he was already working with youngsters in his free time. After winning promotion to the Premier League, he was invited to take over the youth team by manager Kenny Dalglish.
"I didn't really want to retire early. I wanted to continue playing until I was 40 and I was still only 35," he said. "But it was a case of being in the right place ahead of time. I knew where Blackburn were going and felt I needed to take the opportunity."
Some 18 years later, Irvine has no regrets. He followed Dalglish to Newcastle and spent nearly a decade at St James' Park then five years with David Moyes at Everton. The pair hardly knew each other at the start but Moyes knew of Irvine's reputation.
Last summer, West Brom offered 1m to lure Irvine away from Preston but he wanted to stay at Deepdale. That loyalty went unheeded when he was sacked just months later, sending shockwaves around the game.
"My strategy while out of work was going to involve going around clubs, looking and seeing if there were new ideas. I was going to call in favours and watch what other people did," he says. "That didn't happen because eight days later, I was back in work at Sheffield Wednesday."
The Owls have won five games out of eight under Irvine but are still only two points clear of the relegation zone ahead of today's home meeting with Ipswich.
The Owls have signed Republic of Ireland international Eddie Nolan on loan from Preston until the end of the season.
The 6ft 1ins defender has joined an emergency loan deal until May 2, the last day of the season.
Nolan, 21, signed by Irvine in 2008 when he was at Preston, goes straight into the squad for today's game.