Written by John White for Manchester United Did You Know That
On 31 October 1965, Denis Joseph Irwin was born in Cork, Republic of Ireland.Denis played a lot of Gaelic football and hurling during his school days at Coláiste Chríost Rí (CCRí), a Trusteeship Board Catholic secondary school for boys located on Capwell Road on the south side of Cork. Indeed, the young Irwin once marked his future Republic of Ireland team-mate, Niall Quinn, in a minor game of Gaelic football played at Croke Park, Dublin. However, Denis was also an excellent footballer and was capped at schoolboy level by his country. It came as no surprise to his family and friends when he left Turners Cross College football team and crossed the Irish Sea to join Leeds United as an apprentice in March 1982. He was 16-years old at the time and his manager was ex-Leeds United striker, Allan Clarke. His progress at Leeds United was slow and it wasn’t until the 1983-84 season when he made his debut for the Elland Road club (January 1984). He played 12 Second Division games for Leeds United in season 1983-84 and the following season he missed just one League game scoring once in his 41 appearances. Denis lost his place in ex-Leeds captain, Billy Bremner’s, team in the 1985-86 season playing in just 19 Division 2 games without scoring. In May 1986, Denis was placed on the Yorkshire club’s transfer list and was on the verge of moving to Chesterfield. However, the ex-Everton striker Joe Royle, the Oldham Athletic manager, moved in for him immediately. ‘When Leeds let me go, I was devastated. I was only a youngster and I felt like I’d run into a dead end. I’m sure that if I’d not been picked up by Oldham I’d have been tempted to go home to Ireland.’ (Denis speaking to Ted MacAuley of the Sunday Mirror in April 1999)
Irwin spent four highly enjoyable and successful seasons with the Boundary Park club and quickly established himself as the best full-back outside the First Division. He was calmness personified when placed under pressure and rarely made a mistake in the Latics’ defence. A solid performer who was hard but fair in the tackle, a player of immaculate timing, excellent distribution and he posed an attacking threat from his left-back berth. Denis was a vital member of Royle’s team which were runners-up to Nottingham Forest in the 1990 League Cup Final and who gave United a scare in the semi-final of the 1990 FA Cup, drawing 3-3 with United in the first game at Maine Road before losing the replay 2-1 at the same ground. United went on to win the FA Cup, Alex Ferguson’s first trophy success as Manchester United manager, but Denis’s performances in both games at Maine Road were firmly embedded in Fergie’s mind. On 8th June 1990, Fergie persuaded Royle to allow Denis to leave cushioned with a £625,000 transfer deal which was good business for Oldham Athletic who got Denis from Leeds United on a free transfer. ‘When I heard United were interested in me I didn’t even want to talk to anyone else,’ said Irwin at the time of his move. However, Alex Ferguson told Royle that he had placed a coveted eye on Denis long before he finally got his man and he had Denis watched more than 20 times by his team of scouts and advisors. Fergie also informed Royle that he never once received a negative report from his scouts or advisors after they watched Denis play. When he left Boundary Park Denis was full of praise for his former manager; “Joe Royle got my career up and running again and I owe him an awful lot. I got released and Oldham picked me up. I had four years there and they were the stepping stone for me to the success I’ve had at United. I had four great years there.’
Irwin was handed his Manchester United debut on 18th August 1990 in the 1990 FA Charity Shield (now known as the Community Shield) versus Liverpool. He played at right-back in a game that ended 1-1 (scorer: Clayton Blackmore) resulting in the two sides sharing the trophy for six months apiece. On 25th August 1990, Denis made his Manchester United League debut in a 2-0 First Division win at Old Trafford with goals from Steve Bruce and Neil Webb. He was flawless at right-back alongside fellow Irishman Mal Donaghy who played at left-back with the step-up in class proving no obstacle to Denis who looked extremely comfortable among his new team-mates. Denis played in 33 of United’s 42 League games in his first season at Old Trafford (1 as a substitute) and collected a League Cup runners-up medal on 21st April 1991 after United lost 1-0 to Sheffield Wednesday managed by ex-United manager Ron Atkinson. On 15th May 1991, Denis won the first of his 15 winners’ medals with United (excludes 4 Charity Shield winners’ medals) when they beat FC Barcelona 2-1 to claim the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
In August 1991, Fergie paid £1.7 million for Queen’s Park Rangers right-back Paul Parker and decided to switch Irwin to left-back, an inspired move for both manager and player with Denis taking a stranglehold on the No.3 jersey for the next 11 years. In season 1991-92, Denis made 37 Division One appearances for United and scored 4 goals; his first coming against Norwich City at Old Trafford on 7 September 1991 (Brian McClair and Ryan Giggs also scored). The United v Norwich City game was a huge moment in my life as it was the first ever trip to Old Trafford which I organised for The Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club following our affiliation to United as an official Branch of Manchester United’s Supporters’ Club network in July 1991. I can still recall the game that day and often think back to it as the start of something very, very special which 20 years later is as strong as it ever was. Since then I have organised more than 300 trips to Old Trafford for our members and I have seen young boys, including my oldest son Marc who was only 1-year old when I formed the Branch, grow up and become men. Our Paul was born on 4th June 1993 and as I write this book he too is fast approaching manhood. Indeed, one of our early junior members, Michael Morrison, is now a Committee member and a close friend whilst my sparring partner, John Dempsey, has stood firm beside me as Branch Chairman for the past 19 years. I bet our members wish we were still charging them £69 for all their travel, 2 nights in a hotel and a match ticket to go and see United play today which is what it cost us back in 1991 to see the United v Norwich City game!
On 19 November 1991, Denis won a European Super Cup winners’ medal following their 1-0 win over Red Star Belgrade 1-0 at Old Trafford. It was United’s first piece of European silverware in 23 years. On 12 April 1992, Denis won a League Cup winners’ medal after United beat Nottingham Forest 1-0 (scorer: Brian McClair) in the final at Wembley Stadium. A fellow Cork man played for Forest that day and a player who would go on to become an iconic figure at Old Trafford, Roy Keane. It is fair to say that Denis was part of the beginning of Alex Ferguson’s new revolution at Old Trafford which saw United become the most dominant side in English football over the next two decades and beyond and Denis very rarely put a foot wrong in a United shirt. The fans loved his swashbuckling style as he was capable of turning defence into attack, robbing an opposing winger of the ball and then racing off up the line to start an attack at the opposite end of the pitch. When he switched over to left-back he would regularly feed Ryan Giggs on the wing whilst the pair formed one of the most feared attacking partnerships in the Premier League.
Denis’s first four seasons at United were simply breathtaking playing in a Manchester United side that was bursting with talent and brimming in confidence, but even more success was to come for the quiet unassuming Cork man. He was a key player in the United team which clinched the inaugural FA Premier League title in season 1992-93 to end the club’s 26-year wait to be crowned Champions of England. He was an ever-present in the side during the 1992-93 campaign and weighed in with five goals. Irwin was the solitary ever-present during United’s Double-winning season in 1993-94 and two years later helped United to a second Double.
On 5 November 1997, Denis Irwin’s glittering career was almost brought to an end by a thuggish tackle. United were playing Feyenoord in a Group B Uefa Champions League game at Feijenoord Stadion, better known by its nickname De Kuip (the Tub) where United lifted the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup, and leading the game 3-0 after 76 minutes of play. An Andy Cole hat-trick had United in full control of the game and then in the 82nd minute Paul Bosvelt made a very dangerous tackle on Denis. The Dutch player’s studs ripped into Irwin’s calf resulting in the Irishman being stretchered off as Phil Neville came on as a substitute for him. Quite amazingly, the referee, Sándor Puhl from Hungary, didn’t even show Bosvelt a yellow card. At the time Denis feared his career was over and in an interview with Ted McCauley for the Sunday Mirror on 4 April 1999, Denis recalled the incident: ‘I was furious because it was such a bad challenge – and even when I was lying on the floor I was having a right scream at the referee because he didn’t do anything about it. I was in a lot of pain, too. But players are always getting stretchered off and then sprinting straight back on again so the fans probably don’t recognise that a man can get hurt. The thought was there, that my injury was serious and I didn’t really know how bad it was. It was only when the physio told me in the dressing room that it was probably the medial ligaments, that I knew I would be OK. I thought it was a terrible challenge and there’s no place for that against a fellow professional.’ Puhl was dropped by Uefa from refereeing any further games in the competition in season 1997-98 and not selected by Fifa as one of their panel of referees for the 1998 World Cup Finals in France. By missing the latter competition, Puhl missed out on the chance of becoming the first referee to take charge of two Fifa World Cup Finals; he was the referee in the 1994 Final which saw Brazil beat Italy 3-2 on penalties after the game ended 0-0 after extra-time.
However, the pinnacle of Denis’s Manchester United career came in the 1998-99 season when Manchester United won an unprecedented treble of Premier League Championship, FA Cup and the Uefa Champions League. Irwin missed out on the 2-0 FA Cup victory over Newcastle United due to a very harsh red card that he received at Anfield on 5 May 1999 where United won a precious point in a 2-2 draw with Liverpool (United won the Premiership by a single point in 1998-99). Denis Irwin scored United’s second goal that day. Alex Ferguson described Irwin’s sending off as ‘…an affront to commonsense … it ruled out one of the best-behaved and most respected pros in England out of the Cup final.’ Marshall Angus recalls the incident: ‘I never met Denis but in my life I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more consistent player. I honestly don’t remember seeing him have a bad game and some great goals from a left back too. One thing that stands out in my memory is him getting an undeserved red card against Liverpool. I don’t know why it stuck out, maybe because he may have been the most honest player I’ve seen and he certainly did not deserve it. Denis was a great player and one of only two players whose names I’ve had on more than one shirt! Cantona was the other.’ Nevertheless Irwin was awarded an FA Cup winners medal which his earlier performances more than merited. His performances in the United defence alongside Gary and Phil Neville, Henning Berg, Ronny Johnsen, David May and Jaap Stam played a key part in United’s Treble success which saw the team win 36 of their 62 matches and only lost 4 times.
Denis had good reason to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day 2001 when Sir Alex handed him the captain’s armband for the Premiership home game versus Leicester City. It was his 10th season at the club and his 500th appearance for United who won the game 2-0 thanks to two very late goals from Dwight Yorke (88 mins) and Mikael Silvestre (90 mins). On the final day of the 2000-01 campaign Denis was given the honour of captaining United again in what was their last home game of the season for the visit of Derby County. United had already clinched their third successive Premiership crown, their 7th overall, despite the fact that they still had three games to play such was the team’s dominance. We lost 1-0 to The Rams that day but fittingly it was Denis who stepped on to the purpose-built platform on the pitch at Old Trafford to hold aloft the Premier League trophy before 67,526 fans including me. It was a very special moment for Denis who had helped United win all 7 Premiership crowns. He may have been a much underrated player by certain sections of the media and opposing fans but his peers and his adoring United fans knew just how much of an asset he was to United.
The hugely popular Irishman spent 12 memorable years at Old Trafford and in that time he played 356 League games (Division One and Premier League) and scored 22 times (7 from the penalty spot); 42 FA Cup games, 7 goals; 28 League Cup games, 3 goals; 74 European games, 4 goals. In total, he made 529 appearances for United which is just six behind another Irish full-back, Tony Dunne which places Denis 8th in the table of all-time appearance makers for the club. Irwin scored many important goals for United, he had a ferocious shot, was a cool penalty taker and was lethal from free kicks. Denis remains Manchester United’s most successful Irish player in terms of winners’ medals and at a bargain £625,000 represents one of the best transfer deals Alex Ferguson ever did. Even in his mid-30’s Denis was Sir Alex’s first choice left back with Phil Neville waiting in the wings and unquestionably the most consistent performer in the United team season after season. In season 1999-200, he broke the club record for the highest number of European Cup/Uefa Champions League appearances when he played in his 47th game in the competition in the 3-2 quarter-final defeat at Old Trafford to Real Madrid (19th April 2000). On 16th August 2000, Denis was given a Testimonial in recognition of his first 10 years with United and Manchester City provided the opposition. ‘Mr Dependable’ walked out of the tunnel at Old Trafford with his three young children Liam, Lauren and Katy and was welcomed by a standing ovation from his adoring United fans and received a guard of honour from his fellow professionals. However, he was forced to leave the game early after George Weah injured him in a late and clumsy challenge. United won the encounter 2-0 with goals from Teddy Sheringham and Dwight Yorke. Denis won just about everything the domestic game could offer but was never arrogant about his success as a professional footballer. When he was at United he was perceived by just about everybody as being extremely shy but Denis maintained that this was illusionary and a false image of him: ‘I think it’s a bit false. It’s one that seems to have been created by the media. The supporters don’t know me, so they accept that view of my personality. I’m not complaining. I know I don’t get the headlines – but I’m happy to leave that to the forwards because when the stick is being dished out they’re usually the first in line.’ (Denis speaking to Ted MacAuley of the Sunday Mirror in April 1999) Winners’ Medals with Manchester UnitedPremier League (7) – 1992-93, 1993-94, 1995-96, 1996-97, 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2000-01 FA Cup (3) – 1994, 1996, 1999League Cup (1) – 1992Charity Shield (4) – 1990, 1993, 1996, 1997Uefa Champions League (1) – 1999European Cup Winners’ Cup (1) – 1991 European Super Cup (1) – 1991Intercontinental Cup (World Club Championship) (1) – 1999
Irwin’s playing motto was if it’s unnecessary don’t do it. Keep it simple. Keep it plain. He played his last ever game for Manchester United on the final day of the 2001-02 season, 11 May 2002, which ended in a 0-0 draw versus Charlton Athletic. In honour of his sterling service to United Fergie made Denis captain for his final game as the hugely popular Irishman received a standing ovation before and after the game. Irwin’s longevity with United is borne testimony by the fact that not one of his team mates, including substitutes, from the 1990 Charity Shield game was with the club on the day of his last game for United. During his United career there were only two seasons in which he did not collect a winners medal (1994-95 and 2001-02). When he was asked for his best moment at United he said: ‘Winning the Champions League in 1999 was great but my favourite memory is that first league title win in 1993.’ Sir Alex Ferguson labelled Denis as: ‘The best two footed player in my time here.’ I have spoken to many United fans over the years who have lamented over a post-match drink or two how impossible it has been for United to replace the likes of Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel. But for me Denis ‘Mr Dependable‘ Irwin also falls into the latter category of irreplaceable Reds although I must admit Patrice Evra is getting close.
Two months after his final appearance in a United shirt he was on his way to Wolverhampton Wanderers in a free transfer and scored twice for Wolves in his first season with the Black County club (Burnley and Grimsby Town). On 26 May 2003, Wolves beat Sheffield United 3-0 in the Division One Play-Off Final to win promotion to the Premier League, returning to the top tier of English football after a 19-year exile. On 27 August 2003, Denis received one of the loudest welcomes I have ever heard an opposing player receive from United fans when he played for Wolves against United in the Premiership. United won the game 1-0 with a goal from his former United and international team-mate, John O’Shea. At the end of the 2003-04 season, Wolves finished bottom of the Premier League and were relegated back to the First Division of the Football League. The 38-year old Irwin then announced his retirement.
In his autobiography Bobby Charlton chose Denis Irwin in his personal ‘very best of Manchester United.’ The legendary Charlton’s high praise of Irwin is despite the fact that Sir Booby played in the same team as two other legendary Manchester United full-backs, Roger Byrne and Tony Dunne. In his autobiography Sir Bobby said: ‘You never worried about Denis Irwin. I remember him once making a mistake, an occasion so rare I found myself thinking really, I never thought I would see that.’ (Sir Bobby Charlton – My Manchester United Years – The Autobiography; Bobby Charlton with James Lawton (2007), Headline Publishing Group). Meanwhile, Sir Alex Ferguson was equally full of praise for his Irish gem and stated in his autobiography: ‘Nowhere in football is there a more popular player than the unassuming Irishman, who is the ultimate professional, one of those quiet, under-praised heroes who constitute the bedrock of all great teams.’ (Managing My Life- My Autobiography; Alex Ferguson with Hugh McIlvanney (2000), Hodder and Stoughton Ltd). Denis Irwin made his debut for the Republic of Ireland on 12th September 1990 at right-back in a 1-0 friendly win over Morocco at Dalymount Park, Dublin. Indeed, most of his games for his country were at right-back. His first competitive game for his country came on 17 October 1990 versus Turkey in a qualifying game for the 1992 European Football Championships. The game was played at Lansdowne Road, Dublin and Ireland won 5-0. Denis represented Ireland at the 1994 Fifa World Cup Finals in the USA and played in the famous 1-0 win over Italy in Ireland’s opening group match at Giants Stadium. He scored the first of his 4 goals for his country on 29th April 1992 against the USA in a friendly match at Lansdowne Road. Denis pulled on the Irish shirt for the 56th and final time on 17th November 1999 in the second play-off leg against Turkey for the 2000 European Football Championships. The game ended 0-0 and having drawn 1-1 against the Turks in Dublin four days earlier the Irish missed out on Euro 2000 on the away goals rule. Denis Irwin was probably the first name his international manager, Jack Charlton, put down on his team sheet such was the Cork man’s dependability and eagerness to play for his country at every opportunity. Whether it was an international friendly or a crucial Euro or World Cup qualifying game, Denis wanted to pull on the Irish jersey and he never once let his country down. He was a player’s player with commitment, dedication, drive and hard work at the very core of his game. Every time he wore the Irish jersey he knew that a nation depended on him and so he wasn’t going to let them down. Charlton had nothing but the utmost admiration for Denis saying: ‘There are certain types of players who give managers headaches and I’ve come across a few in my time in the Ireland job. Denis, though, is a manager’s dream, a class act, a nice guy and a player you could always bank on to come up trumps.’In 2002, he was named to the ‘Overall Team of the Decade’ for the Premier League’s 10 Seasons Awards (1992-93 to 2001-02).