Remembering Greatness: Denis Irwin

Think about the current world of football and the full-back position. How demanding it is, how much quality is needed both defensively and going forward, how fit you need to be to play it at a high level, how much quality you need on the ball.

Now look at the most successful team in England over the last 30 years and look at who their starting left-back was and appreciate just how good Denis Irwin was.

The Republic of Ireland international was the man on the left for Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side throughout the nineties and early 00’s but is so often overlooked when it comes to conversations about great defenders.

After playing for Leeds and Oldham through the eighties, Irwin joined Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson in 1990 as a 25-year-old in the prime of his career for just £625,000.

Over the next 12 years with the club Irwin would lock down the left-back position despite being naturally right-footed for the entirety of his Old Trafford career. He would make 529 appearances for the club across all competitions, averaging 44 appearances per season.

One of the greatest, most underrated attributes that a player can have is availability. Irwin was rarely injured and other than this his first ever season as a senior professional he only made less than 25 appearances in all competitions twice throughout his entire career, despite retiring aged 38.

Irwin was part of United’s legendary back four that won the first two instalments of the Premier League, alongside Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and Paul Parker. His ability to get up and down the pitch was especially key to the way the team played, with Ryan Giggs often in front of him needing support against opposition defenders but also not the best going backwards.

The Irish international’s ability on the ball is also understated, but it should be remembered that despite being in a team blessed with the talent of the likes of Roy Keane, Giggs and Eric Cantona it was Irwin who was given free-kick and penalty duty by the manager.

He retained that starter role as the rest of the team around him evolved, as the Class of 92 became more prominent and United signed the likes of Ronny Johnsen, Jaap Stam and Henning Berg to play in central defence too.

His brilliant performances and unmatched consistency saw him keep the younger Phil Neville out of the team as United won seven out of nine Premier League titles during his time at the club.

26th MAY 1999. UEFA Champions League Final. Barcelona, Spain. Manchester United 2 v Bayern Munich 1. Manchester United's Denis Irwin lifts the European trophy. : News Photo

His trademark season was obviously the 98/99 season as Manchester United captured the treble, winning the Premier League, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League in a single campaign. Irwin would make 48 appearances across all competitions that year, showing his importance to the side.

He would leave Old Trafford in 2002 after yet another title, moving to Wolves to be reunited with former United teammate Paul Ince.

Despite dropping down a division and being 36 years old, Irwin was a key cog in the team that won the First Division and were promoted to the Premier League. He was so important in that team that he was voted in to the PFA team of the year, making it the fourth time in his career that he was voted in.

A true professional on and off the pitch, Irwin was the definition of an unsung hero. Always ready, a steady 7/10 performer week in and week out, who could do the exact job required of him no matter the opponent.

Whether it was to bank up and defend, man-mark a tricky winger or go on the front foot and bomb forward he had it all in his locker and is without a doubt one of the best full-backs in Premier League history.


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