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Denis Irwin: the quiet professional who became one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest signings

Denis Irwin: the quiet professional who became one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest signings

DESPITE 15 YEARS having past since Denis Irwin pulled on the red jersey of Manchester United for the final time, the former Irish International still remains a firm favourite of the United family. This is evident in his current role as a pundit on MUTV where, no matter where in the world he goes on tour with the current team, he is in big demand.

Despite many of today’s youngsters never receiving the opportunity to see the Irishman perform live in a United jersey, apart from the occasional outings with the Legends XI, the name Denis Irwin is engrained into the history of Manchester United. Although he was less vocal than the likes of Bryan Robson, Peter Schmeichel or Roy Keane, his importance to United cannot and should not be forgotten.

In the current era, where reliable, complete full-backs are hard to find, Irwin would be in high demand. After all, he possessed many qualities for a defensive player: he could attack as well as defend and became known for his free-kicks and penalties. Above all that, he was Mr Dependable – a man teammates loved playing with and one who preferred to do his talking on the pitch.

Perhaps this is why Sir Alex Ferguson rejected the possibility of selling Irwin to Leeds United when, as the story goes, 25 years ago Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards received a phone call from Leeds supremo Bill Fotherby, who was interested in bringing the Irishman back to Elland Road for a second spell. The phone call went down in history after Ferguson and Edwards dismissed the interest in Irwin. Ferguson suggested he’d be more keen on buying rather than selling, and it ultimately resulted in Eric Cantona heading to Old Trafford. The rest is history.

This story has been told many times with some suggesting it was not as straightforward as reported. However, one fact to come from that phone call was the importance of Irwin to United and Ferguson, and how the Scot never entertained the idea of parting ways with the player. He would go on to stay another decade at Old Trafford.

Sir Alex Ferguson standing tall at Old Trafford in the mid 1990’s
Picture: Richard Austin
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Irwin hung up his boots in May 2004 after a staggering 22 years in the game. He was part of the Jack Charlton’s Irish army that travelled to the USA 94 and, as a Manchester United player, he collected no less than seven Premier League titles and lifted the Champions League on that famous night in Barcelona in 1999. Simply put, he is one of the most decorated Irish players to have ever played the game.

Denis Irwin was born on 31 October 1965 in Cork, Ireland. He spent much of his youth as a typical Irish boy does by getting himself involved in both hurling and Gaelic football, but in 1983 he made the move to Leeds in the Second Division, making 72 appearances for the Whites.

In 1986 he made to move to Oldham. With the Latics, he and his teammates reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup where his performance caught the eye of his opposing manager, Alex Ferguson. Oldham also reached the League Cup final in 1990 where they met Nottingham Forest, but narrowly lost out to Brian Clough’s men. Irwin was starting to catch the eye of a host of top clubs and United duly came calling in 1990 after a £625,000 bid as accepted.

Irwin was brought in to play at right-back, a position which was held by Mike Phelan. However, the left side of the defence became his home for over a decade. His versatility was crucial to United, with the Irishman man at home no matter where he was asked to play.

While his career at Oldham was promising, he would achieve legend at Old Trafford. He went on to make 529 appearances in the red half of Manchester, winning seven Premier League titles, three FA Cups, one League Cup as well as collecting the Champions League and Cup Winners’ Cups among the 19 major honours he would leave Old Trafford with in 2002.

He also knew where the goal was, with his most famous strike coming in a 3-3 thriller with rivals Liverpool in the 1993/94 season, at a time when those clashes signalled the shifting tide in northern England.

Players like Denis Irwin are few and far between. They do their talking on the pitch and make the back pages rather than the front. Irwin was hugely respected by those who played with him, with Ferguson once calling him pound for pound one of his greatest signings.

Indeed, the Irishman watched the Class of ’92, including Gary Neville, David Beckham and Paul Scholes, become the media darling, while Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona stole the goal-scoring headlines. Roy Keane and Paul Ince were the vocal influencers in midfield, with the likes of Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce commanding defence. However, despite his quiet demeanour both on and off the pitch, Irwin was just a crucial. There remains a stubborn lack of recognition for both his consistency and often-overlooked talent, but given the nature of the man, he would likely be glad to take a back seat.

The treble-winning season of 1998/99 will undoubtedly go down as the greatest under Ferguson, and it was a season in which Irwin was crucial again. Irwin speaks fondly of those 10 days in May 1999 when United wrapped up the Premier League by beating Tottenham on the final day of the season, beat Newcastle United at Wembley in the FA Cup final, and then made history in Barcelona by defeating a shell-shocked Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.

“Playing football is a great life, I was fortunate to play with so many great players at Manchester United which made my life easier, but 1999 would take some beating. I think you’d have to win the World Cup to top those 10 days, winning the league, beating Newcastle in the FA Cup and beating Bayern Munich, the way we did it will take some beating,” said Denis Irwin.

Irwin started 45 times throughout that season in all competitions. He was first and foremost a defender but his overlapping runs on the left wing with Ryan Giggs along were a huge part of that season’s success. The pair were perhaps less heralded than Neville and Beckham but no less effective.

Sir Alex Ferguson is often asked the question of who would make it into his all-time team of players he managed at Old Trafford. Despite having coached the likes of Mark Hughes, Giggs, Cantona, Keane and Cristiano Ronaldo, only Denis Irwin would be guaranteed a starting berth in what would be an incredible team according to the Scot: “People ask you ‘what is your best Man United team?’ It’s absolutely impossible. Honestly, I would say Denis Irwin would be the one certainty to get in the team.

“At Highbury in one game, he had a bad pass back in the last minute and Dennis Bergkamp came in and scored. After the game the press said: ‘You must be disappointed in that pass back.’ I said: ‘Well, one mistake in 10 years isn’t bad.’ He was an unbelievable player.”

It’s the highest possible praise from the greatest manager in the modern era.

As a new era emerged at Old Trafford, Irwin knew his days were numbered as a regular. He could have chosen to bow out at the top or stay at United and pick up his wages as a bit-part player; he hads probably earned that right. However, the Cork man knew he had more to give and joined Wolves, winning promotion to the Premier League and collecting yet another winners medal.

He made a return to Old Trafford the following season with the Midland club and was given a standing ovation from his former supporters who will never forget the contribution he made to their club.

Irwin also achieved every young boy’s dream and lined-up for the Republic of Ireland 56 times, scoring four goals. Despite missing out on a place at Italia 90, where he watched from a bar in Cork, he was part of Charlton’s Irish side that went to the United States, where they shocked world football by defeating the mighty Italians in New Jersey in a game that has gone down in Irish folklore.

Players like Denis Irwin are becoming a rare commodity in the game today. When Manchester United fans look back on that famous phone call in 1992 that resulted in Cantona joining their club, they should be equally thankful that Sir Alex Ferguson held onto Denis Irwin. At a time when Jose Mourinho is forced to play both Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young as makeshift full-backs, what wouldn’t Manchester United supporters give for another defender as consistent and talented as Denis Irwin?

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