How Manchester United fans must long for the presence and longevity of the greats from their illustrious past. Today, the stark contrast of United’s anchored reliance on fullbacks well beyond their expiration date is not the breed of longevity desired. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia stayed well beyond their peak and is a sad reminder of United’s inability to invest in the transfer market correctly. The pair in their prime were quality but had to be sold to make way for younger talents. By contrast, Denis Irwin was the trusty bottle of Irish whiskey, as he showed how staying power can be presented during his twelve-year spell in Manchester. He is looked back upon fondly, and he is the footballing definition of an underrated, unsung hero.
After impressing in an FA Cup semi-final whilst playing for Oldham against Manchester United, Irwin was signed for around £625,000 and quickly became a key man in the back four. Capable of playing on either flank, Irwin was integral as Ferguson’s side took the 1990s by storm, culminating in the famous treble of 1999. He was dependable in all situations, and his flexibility to play as an inverted left back allowed for the blooming of a young Gary Neville at right back. However, Irwin’s quality was not compromised, instead he would go on to be Alan Hansen’s greatest ever Premier League right back and left back.
Irwin acted as a refreshing tonic in the starting eleven against the glamour and stardom of the likes of Cantona and Beckham. Ferguson remarked that Irwin would be the first name on the team sheet, even with the presence of mercurial talents in attacking positions. Even at 33, Irwin played the full ninety minutes in the Champion’s League final against Bayern Munich, demonstrating his importance above his age. One only has to look to Guardiola’s fullback revolution, removing Zabaleta and Kolarov and replacing them with £50 million acquisitions, to identify the impressiveness of Irwin’s staying power at the highest level.
It wasn’t until three years after that night in Barcelona when Irwin finally moved on to Wolves for his final two playing years. This is indicative of Ferguson’s conscious understanding of the need to refresh and regenerate his players, even in the face of their quality and history. Jaap Stam, Beckham and van Nistelrooy all fell to the Scot’s scythe and Irwin’s time had come too. His return to Old Trafford with Wolves was meant by a crescendo of cheers from the home fans, his legacy remaining after his 12 years of underrated greatness.
Despite being a defender, Irwin’s ability from set pieces was extraordinary, and before the advent of living breathing brand deal Beckham, Irwin was thwacking free kicks into the postage stamp with the nonchalant manner of clay pigeon gunman. In reality, when Irwin stood over a free kick, he looked oddly out of place, like an antelope in a skate park. His unassuming ability to smash the ball, forcing it spinning through the sky, heat-missile locked for the upper stanchion, became a trademark.
Rewind to January 1994 and the early Premier League was about to experience one of its first true classics. Manchester United raced into a three-goal lead over Liverpool, only to end up drawing the game 3-3 thanks to a Neil Ruddock goal ten minutes from time. In the 24th minute, Irwin stands over a free kick nearly thirty yards out. A young, floppy-haired Jamie Redknapp stands in the seven man Liverpool wall, eager to rush out and block Irwin’s certain glory. Instead, Irwin proceeds to caress the ball into the top corner, gliding through the air like a dart. Grobbelaar can do nothing, he might as well be standing next to Schmeichel at the other end of the ground. A half-hearted hop across his goal line is all the resistance put up to Irwin’s strike. If Julian Dicks was a shotgun, blasting the deadball with ferocity and insanity, Irwin was the sniper, cool and collected, picking his spot and sweeping home with aesthetic accuracy.
Irwin’s international career shared similarities with that of his teammate Ryan Giggs, in that his immense talent was never rewarded with the level of success he had attained at club level. With only one international tournament to his name, the 1994 World Cup, Irwin’s time in green was mired by a lack of quality throughout the side, leaving him struggling to make his mark in international football. How different might this have been if Irwin had decided to pursue Gaelic football as he had in his youth, spotted as a potential great of the nation’s national sport. Surely, the sense of Irish pride and sport itself would have been greater as Irish football has always had difficulty in outmanoeuvring Gaelic, and Irwin’s moments of representing his country would be far more celebrated. Alas, for Manchester United, the choice to side with association football provided them with one of the true Premier League greats.
The absence of Irwin’s name from conversations and listicles surrounding greatness is a shame, and perhaps symptomatic of the historical eradication played in part by the creation of the Premier League. If football changed in 1992 with the Premier League, it surely changed again by the start of the 21st century and again by the 2010s, the increase in foreign influences and TV money meant bargains such as Irwin became more and more difficult to find. The force-feeding of constant football, the never-ending refresh of players and managers also means that the unassuming brilliance of those such as Irwin is left to dissipate into a pool of forgetfulness, not a glamorous enough name to warrant a mention in the modern era of Twitter experts and YouTube highlight reels.
Yet, for those who saw him week in, week out for Manchester United remember a player who was utterly dependable, excellent from set pieces, an astonishing longevity and most of all, criminally underrated.