Heart of Football

Denis Irwin: Manchester United & Sir Alex Ferguson’s Mr Reliable

This May sees the 30th anniversary of Manchester United’s 1989/90 FA Cup victory, a campaign which began in the 3rd round against Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. The only goal scored by Mark Robins gave the Red Devils a 1-0 victory widely believed to have saved Sir Alex Ferguson from the sack. After a thrilling 3-3 draw after extra time in the Final against Crystal Palace, a goal from left-back Lee Martin gave United a 1-0 victory in the replay.

The cup triumph was truly earned. Man Utd played all of their ties away and had to overcome replays in both the semi-finals and Final. With his first trophy won, Ferguson had finally lit the touch paper for success at Old Trafford. However, one other noteworthy and often forgotten event of that cup run for the Red Devils is that it brought to their attention a player who would go on to be arguably Ferguson’s greatest ever signing: Denis Irwin.

Early beginnings at Leeds United and Oldham Athletic

Denis Irwin was born on 31 October 1965 in Cork. After playing both Gaelic football and hurling in his youth alongside football, Irwin began his professional career aged 17 by signing his first professional contract at Man Utd’s rivals Leeds United in 1983. Irwin debuted in the 1983/84 campaign and established himself as a regular starter in 1984/85 making 45 appearances in all competitions. 

However, Irwin featured less frequently in 1985/86, making only 24 appearances. Leeds, in the second tier of English football, endured their worst campaign since 1961/62, eventually finishing 14th and way out of reach of the promotion places. At season’s end, Irwin was released by Leeds on a free transfer to fellow Second Division outfit Oldham Athletic.

At the time, Oldham were managed by former Everton and Manchester City great Joe Royle. In a 12-year managerial career at the Latics between 1982 and 1994 he led the Lancashire outfit to heights not seen since the 1920s. Irwin instantly made an impact, with the Latics narrowly missing out on promotion to the top flight in 1986/87. In four seasons, Irwin made 204 appearances. However, two games in his final year changed his career forever.

Those two matches came against United in the 1989/90 FA Cup semi-final. After already defeating Birmingham City, Brighton & Hove Albion, Everton and Aston Villa, Royle’s Latics fancied themselves against Ferguson’s United, in a game taking place on the neutral venue of Maine Road, home of Manchester City. 

The action began as early as the 5th minute. A ball was swung into the United penalty box from Oldham’s right flank, and after an initial missed chance from Ian Marshall, defender Earl Barrett stabbed home a shot to put the Latics ahead.

Oldham led until the 27th minute when Bryan Robson equalised. The Red Devils then took the lead on 72 minutes when a looped header from Lee Martin found Neil Webb, who bravely rose in the box to head home. Merely three minutes later, Oldham leveled when Marshall finished a cleared cross from the right flank. 

After finishing 2-2 over 90 minutes, United regained the lead two minutes into extra time when a long ball through the centre found winger Danny Wallace who calmly slotted home. However, refusing to lie down, Oldham once more fought back with seven minutes to go. A composed pass across the box found Roger Palmer who scored to make it 3-3. A replay was needed just three days later.

In the replay, after a goalless first half, Man Utd took the lead on 50 minutes when a low bobbling cross from Wallace found Brian McClair at the back post who made no mistake. Just nine minutes from the end though, Oldham equalised through former Red Devil Andy Ritchie. The replay went to extra time and with six minutes left, Man Utd scored the winner. A through ball by current Red Devils’ assistant manager Mike Phelan found substitute Mark Robins who calmly finished off the attacking move.

Despite Oldham’s loss, Irwin had impressed in both games and caught Ferguson’s eye. The Latics’ failure to win promotion at the end of a campaign, which also saw them reach the final of the League Cup losing to Nottingham Forest, was the catalyst for Ferguson to make a move for the Irishman. Eventually Ferguson and Man Utd got their man for a fee of GBP 630,000.

Versatility and longevity in both defence and attack

Upon his arrival at Old Trafford, Irwin quickly made an impression, establishing himself as first-choice right-back in his debut season at Old Trafford in 1990/91. However, with Paul Parker signing in the summer of 1991 and instantly taking his position, Irwin was then moved to regular starter at left-back. It would be a position Irwin would retain as first choice starter for a whole decade.

Irwin instantly proved himself a real fan favourite with the Old Trafford faithful. Just like the man who held the right-back position at Old Trafford for the majority of the 1990s, Gary Neville, Irwin certainly contributed over the years with some fine overlapping runs whilst supporting winger Ryan Giggs down Man Utd’s left flank. 

The 1990s was an era when the full-back role was beginning to evolve. Just as they were when their brilliance stunned the world at the 1970 FIFA World Cup in Mexico, Brazil were at the forefront of this evolution. Their first choice full-backs for much of this period, Cafu on the right and Roberto Carlos on the left, saw many clubs start to deploy their full-backs in an offensive fashion.

Crucially, however, Irwin was also excellent in defence which further cemented his status as a fine all-rounder. In a documentary chronicling Brian Clough’s great Nottingham Forest teams, Viv Anderson, Forest’s right-back in their glory era, stated that Clough emphasised his full-backs fulfilling their defensive responsibilities above anything else. Despite their newly instructed attacking instructions, full-backs could not forget their defensive duties.

One of the great attributes Irwin possessed was his ability at set pieces. Irwin barely ever missed penalty kicks, and after the retirement of Eric Cantona in 1997 he was Man Utd’s designated penalty taker, scoring 13 in total for the Red Devils. In addition to this, he was also a fine free kick taker. Although the emergence of David Beckham in the mid-1990s meant Irwin had to give way as Man Utd’s free kick specialist, he managed to score five direct free kicks in his first five seasons at Old Trafford. 

The most noteworthy of these came at Anfield in 1993/94 against fierce rivals Liverpool. With the score at 2-0 to Man Utd in the 24th minute, Irwin unleashed a superb free-kick into the top corner of Bruce Grobbelaar’s net, an effort as finely executed as any other.

Another string to Irwin’s bow was his long-distance strikes. On numerous occasions upon opposing teams clearing the ball after a Man Utd attack, he was often waiting on the edge of the penalty box ready to fire a shot, hard and fast. Some whistled past the best goalkeepers around into the back of the net.

His longevity also made him such a vital cog in Man Utd’s 1990s success. In his first five seasons at Old Trafford, Irwin missed just 14 league matches. In the first three seasons of the Premier League era between 1992/93 and 1994/95, Irwin missed just four league games and was an ever-present in the 1993/94 campaign when Man Utd won the league and FA Cup double. 

Even when turning 34 partway through the 1999/00 season, Irwin still made 42 appearances in all competitions for the club. Upon the time of his release from Old Trafford in the summer of 2002 on a free transfer, he had played 529 games in 12 seasons at an average of just over 44 games per campaign.

Late career with Wolves and adventures with Jack Charlton’s Ireland at USA ’94

Despite being 36 upon his release from Manchester United, Irwin opted to sign for Wolverhampton Wanderers, then in the second-tier Championship. Under their long-time owner, the late Sir Jack Hayward, the West Midlands outfit were targeting a place in the Premier League for 2003/04. It was a sign of ambition to convince the Irishman to drop down a level when he could have still done a job for a Premier League club.

Reunited with his old United team-mate Paul Ince at Molineux, Irwin featured in 43 league matches in 2002/03, missing just three games all campaign despite turning 37 in October and playing the full 90 minutes in 41 of those 43 games.

Wolves and Sir Jack’s dream of reaching the Premier League became a reality as Old Gold outclassed Sheffield United 3-0 in the playoff final. Irwin showed no signs of slowing down with his performances which impressed the Molineux terraces, and he was voted into the Championship team of the year for his efforts.

After promotion, Irwin signed a one year extension to his contract in an attempt to keep Wolves back in the top flight. However, despite appearing in 32 league matches, 30 of which were as a starter, Wolves were unable to avoid relegation and returned to the Championship, denying a fairytale end to Irwin’s long and distinguished career.

Irwin’s signing for Man Utd in 1990 soon led to his debut for Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland in October 1990, a 5-0 victory over Turkey in a Euro ’92 qualifier. Despite failing to qualify for the finals, the Republic of Ireland were the only one of the Home Nations to make the FIFA 1994 World Cup in the United States.

Drawn in a group with eventual runners-up Italy, Norway and Mexico, Ireland’s World Cup campaign began with a bang, Irwin playing the whole 90 minutes as they stunned Italy 1-0 thanks to a Ronnie Whelan goal. Irish goalkeeper Packie Bonner, alongside a defensive four of Irwin, Phil Babb, Terry Phelan and most notably Paul McGrath memorably kept Gli Azzurri at bay.

This result against the Italians helped Ireland progress to the last 16 of the tournament, with a second placed finish following a narrow 2-1 loss to Mexico, and a 0-0 draw with Norway in their other two group matches. It remains the only group in World Cup history where all teams finished on the same points and with the same goal difference. 

Irwin, however, was suspended for the final group-stage game after collecting two yellow cards in the first two matches. For the last 16 clash against the Netherlands, Jack Charlton opted to stick with the same side that drew against Norway, which meant Leeds youngster Gary Kelly starting at right back over Irwin.

Ireland lost 2-0 and were out of the World Cup. Nonetheless, similarly to the 1990 World Cup in Italy where they stunned everyone by reaching the quarter-finals, Ireland had won hearts across the world with their valiant performances despite a limited player pool.

Sadly for Irwin, USA ’94 would be the only international tournament he would play in. Ireland failed to qualify for Euro ‘96, the 1998 FIFA World Cup and Euro 2000 after narrowly losing a play-off to Turkey on away goals. After the second leg of said playoff defeat, Irwin ended his international career against the very same opponent that he had started it against, winning 56 caps for his country.

Pound for pound, Ferguson’s greatest signing for Manchester United

There have been more talented players to pull on a Manchester United shirt than Denis Irwin over the years.  However, there is a strong argument to say that he would represent Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest ever signing for Manchester United.

One major reason to back this claim up is the modest transfer fee of ₤635,000 paid for his services and the statistics and success United got for their buck. The club got over a decade’s service from Irwin; 529 appearances in all competitions, at ₤1,190 per appearance. Fourteen major trophies won at ₤45,000 per trophy.

Include the five charity shield victories and one Intercontinental Cup won in 1999 and it works out at ₤31,500 per trophy won. One would be hard pressed to find a player anywhere else with such an impressive ratio between appearances, trophies won and transfer fee.

Irwin’s remarkable consistency also strengthens the above claim. The Irishman may not have produced many world class games of a Cristiano Ronaldo level, which had fans out of their seats, but his performance levels consistently remained between good and excellent every week for United, barely registering a bad game.

Ferguson even himself stated Irwin was the only certainty for his all-time Man Utd XI. In addition, Ferguson described Irwin as “an eight out of ten” player, and when pressed by the media after a poor backpass by the Irishman had led to Dennis Bergkamp scoring for Arsenal, Ferguson vociferously defended him stating, “Well one mistake in 10 years isn’t bad”.

Irwin only failed to reach 40 appearances in all competitions in just three of his 12 seasons at Old Trafford. On a pre-Monday Night Football show in early 2014 Gary Neville, upon analysing then 34-year-old John Arne Riise’s games for Fulham, highlighted how much harder a position full-back becomes at such an age. Yet aged 34 in the 1999/00 season, Irwin remained as good as he was upon signing for the Red Devils 10 years earlier.

Irwin was a perfect professional on the pitch. He was only sent off once in his whole career, and it was a very harsh red card at Anfield in a 2-2 draw against Liverpool in 1998/99. A fiercely committed player who gave beyond 100 per cent to the cause. There was never any major speculation about him leaving United. Week in, week out, he simply got his head down and produced stellar performances, displays that permanently endeared him to the hearts of the Old Trafford faithful.

Based on the accolades, consistency, longevity and how he hit the footballing heights after being released by Leeds, then rebuilding his career at Oldham, Denis Irwin has to be a strong contender as Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest ever signing for Manchester United. He arguably could be considered one of the greatest signings and most underrated players of all time.

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