Now there was a player, Denis Irwin. We always called him ‘eight out of ten Denis’. So Quick and nimble: quick-brained. Never let you down.
– Sir Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography
When Denis Irwin was at fault for a goal scored by Dennis Bergkamp in a clash between Manchester United and Arsenal in the late 1990s, Alex Ferguson responded to questions about whether he was disappointed with his full-back by retorting that Irwin had never previously made a mistake.
“I think we can forgive him one,” said the Scot that night.
That summed up Irwin’s time at Old Trafford. He was famously reliable, seemingly incapable of playing poorly, and always a perfect professional.
In 2013, when Ferguson was doing a theatre tour to promote his new autobiography in the months following his retirement, he said that were he commented that Irwin would be the only certainty to make it into his greatest ever United XI.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, David Beckham, Eric Cantona, Mark Hughes, Bryan Robson and plenty of other club legends couldn’t be guaranteed a place that hypothetical side, but Irwin was.
“People ask you: ‘Who is your best Man United team?’ And it’s absolutely impossible…Honestly, I would say Denis Irwin would be the one certainty to get in the team. I called him an eight out of 10,” Ferguson said at the time.
Irwin might be considered something of a late bloomer. He was only a few months shy of his 25th birthday when United bought him from Oldham for just over £600,000 on this very day in 1990.
The Irishman, who talented at Gaelic sports in his youth, had never played top flight football before then. He started his professional career at Leeds in the early 1980s, before making the switch to Oldham a few years later in 1986.
The dependable star was a virtual ever present in the Second Division, rarely missing a game for the Latics in four years with the club. Irwin actually faced United in the 1990 FA Cup semi-final when Oldham were only narrowly beaten over 240 minutes against the top flight opponent.
Less than two months after those two clashes, Irwin was a United player. So many of Ferguson’s best signings over the decades of his reign earned their move by shining in games against United.
Capable of playing on the left or right side of the defence, Irwin was an instant regular, playing over 50 games in his debut season. He finished the campaign by facing Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final. United won the game 2-1 against a side who would go on to win the European Cup 12 months later and have become immortalised as the ‘Dream Team’.
Irwin helped United finish second in the First Division in 1991/92, narrowly losing out to first club Leeds in the title race. Then only a few months later Leeds chairman Bill Fotherby made a phone call to opposite number Martin Edwards enquiring about taking the player back.
When United rejected the approach for Irwin, legend has it the tables were instantly turned as they themselves enquired about signing Leeds forward Eric Cantona. That deal was soon done for £1.2m.
Irwin won Premier League titles with United in 1992/93 and 1993/94, playing 62 games in the latter as United completed a domestic double with FA Cup glory. More titles followed in 1995/96 (another double) and 1996/97, before the treble campaign in 1998/99.
Although he began to share duties with new signing Mikael Silvestre after 1999, Irwin remained a regular and added a sixth and seventh Premier League title in 1999/00 and 2000/01 respectively.
By the time he left United aged 36 in the summer of 2002, Irwin had 529 games for the club, a tally that still keeps him ninth in the list of all-time appearances. He also often chipped in with goals for United, getting 33 in total. Earlier on it was free-kicks, while the emergence of David Beckham and the retirement of Eric Cantona later saw him switch to penalties instead.
Former United captain turned pundit Roy Keane is not exactly known for dishing out praise – this was a player who helped paved the way for his own departure from Old Trafford by publicly laying into several of his teammates while analysing a game on MUTV.
Yet Keane, the man who only settled for the very best, never has anything but good to say about his old colleague, highlighting just how valued Irwin was by those who played with him.
“He could play left-back, right-back, get you a goal, knew how to defend, never injured, a brilliant guy in the dressing room. Denis would be world class to me,” Keane said during an appearance as a pundit on Sky Sports last year.
Underappreciated in his time and now, but that is how Irwin should be remembered. World class.