“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.” – Sir Alex Ferguson
Described by Sir Alex Ferguson as “pound-for-pound” his greatest ever signing, Irish left-back Denis Irwin was a constant presence in Manchester United sides from 1990 to 2002, seeing in his time the emergence first of Roy Keane and Eric Cantona, and later the famous Class of ‘92. Through all this and more – the influx of expensive foreign signings in the Premier League and the globalisation of the Old Trafford brand – Irwin remained the team’s most reliable and consistent performer.
“You’d have Denis Irwin in there every day of the week” – Roy Keane dissing his all-time Manchester United XIcus
Only seven players have played more times for the club than Irwin, a fact made more remarkable considering his time there is book-ended first by seven years at Leeds and Oldham, and also a telling two-year contribution to Wolverhampton Wanderers (where he was instrumental in their promotion to the Premier League) following his Manchester departure.
Despite this, the modern game has sometimes overlooked Irwin’s career to the point that his lack of recognition has become a talking point in itself. The aforementioned Class of ‘92 receive most of the plaudits for Manchester United’s dominance of English football in Irwin’s period at the club; Roy Keane, Bryan Robson and Paul Ince provide the necessary notoriety for any good football story, and with Ferguson at the helm there was often little room for any other headlines.
The 1998-99 treble season was Ferguson’s greatest achievement. The Manchester United squad that year was packed with talent; with the likes of Ryan Giggs, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer all remembered for scoring important and iconic goals throughout the campaign. Yet only four outfield players started more games in the season than Irwin’s 45 across all competitions. Between 1990 and the end of the millennium he made over 40 appearances each season in all but two. He was Mr. Dependable before the term became a damning-with-faint-praise description for the likes of James Milner.
To say he was a mainstay of the treble-winning team would be an understatement, although such wording seems to fit Irwin well. Recalling the Champions League final, Andy Cole remembers that he “didn’t even sleep the night before”, whereas Irwin’s description of how he felt on the eve of the biggest game of his life was somewhat more relaxed, downplaying the occasion by stating that “there’s always a few tingles there”. Along with consistency, reliability and media-shy, unruffled is one of the more common descriptions of Irwin in the journalistic lexicon.
His playing style was as measured as his personality. He was first and foremost a defender, never one to forget exactly what it was he was there for. When the opportunity arose he could also make telling contributions at the other end of the pitch, with a delivery as sure if not as spectacular as David Beckham on the opposite flank. He is best remembered by most for his penalty-taking duties, where he was as nerveless as expected with his favoured right foot. His versatility on both sides of central defence must also be noted, as well as the scarcity of right-footed players who make the left-back position their own.
“In any team of the decade, the full-back slots are already nailed down – Denis Irwin at right-back and Denis Irwin at left-back.” – Alan Hansen
For one of the greatest club managers in English football history however, his consistency – both in his playing career and his demeanour off the pitch – was Irwin’s greatest strength, despite his dead-ball specialties being a more than welcome attribute. There was a quiet determination in Irwin that was at odds with some of the bigger personalities he shared a dressing room with at Old Trafford – Robson, Keane, Schmeichel – but it was no less effective.
Irwin had been earmarked in childhood as a future Cork senior hurler or gaelic footballer, two sports that he excelled at in his school days at Coláiste Chríost Rí. It can be difficult for the uninitiated to understand the significance of such an option, and it speaks volumes of Irwin that he instead went to Leeds to test himself in an apprenticeship, where no such guarantees of success existed.
The young Irwin had the prospect of scholarships and local glory playing in the red and white of Cork but after speaking to Dublin-based Irish schoolboy players who had been on trials across the water, he wanted the same challenge. To put the decision in context, Cork secured All-Ireland championship glory in both native codes in 1990, the same year Ferguson signed the young Corkman for Manchester United.
At the time only a handful of Irish players were playing full-time professional football in England. But Irwin, who reputedly often flung silverware for various sporting achievements under the stairs in Togher along with his dirty gear growing up, had not only the confidence but the drive and desire to succeed even if his persona suggested a timidity that was unsuited to elite sporting achievement. His list of honours can now do the talking for him – seven Premier League titles, three FA Cups and the 1999 Champions League medal place him among the most decorated of Manchester United and Ireland footballers. Also in his collection are a League Cup, European Cup Winner’s Cup and the Intercontinental Cup (now the FIFA Club World Cup), and it would be no surprise if all of these were given the same treatment as the hurling, gaelic football and chess trophies of his youth.
“There is a consistent nature about Denis that has allowed him to play to 35 years of age at the highest level. It’s very important to stress the point about a person being consistent in their nature. Denis is one of those types who leads his life at the same level all the time” – Sir Alex Ferguson
Since his retirement Sir Alex Ferguson has drawn considerable ire from some ex-players (including Irwin’s Cork compatriot Roy Keane) for his attempts to revise history to settle scores, most notably when he spoke about the only “world class” players he has managed. Discussing in 2013 his ultimate Manchester United team, Ferguson was more diplomatic, claiming that the task was “impossible” before reeling off a list of former greats in every position of the pitch bar one, claiming that Irwin “would be the one certainty to get in the team. I called him an eight out of 10”.
To put that declaration in context, it is worth looking at the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year roll of honour, an award voted for by the fans. Roy Keane won consecutive awards in the 98-99 and 99-00 seasons, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Eric Cantona also picked up two awards in their time at the club, while Irwin’s successor Gabriel Heinze was only the second defender to be given the accolade. It was Irwin’s consistency that ensured he was never singled out for individual honours; nothing was ever remarkable about a Denis Irwin season – no purple patches or blips in form, reliable, consistent and quietly brilliant all at once.
Roy Keane left the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes out of his Manchester United XI, declaring that “having a great career doesn’t make you a great player”. Irwin was a great player first and foremost, and despite the lack of headlines or acclaim there are few who would disagree bar the man himself. That would be his nature, and ultimately part of what made him so good for so long.
Words by Michael Hayes, image by David Harpur at The GegenPress