Who would figure in the list of the top pound-for-pound signings during Sir Alex Ferguson’s long and illustrious reign at Manchester United? Peter Schmeichel? Ole Gunnar Solskjær? Roy Keane? Ralph Milne?
Then there was of course Le Roi, Eric Cantona, purchased at a bargain £1.2 million from Leeds United in 1992. However that seismic, history changing transfer may have never come to pass had it not been for an unwitting assist from United’s trusty Irish fullback.
As the tale goes, in late November of 1992 Martin Edwards received a call from the Managing Director of Leeds United, Bill Fotherby, inquiring about the availability of Denis Irwin. Ferguson and Edwards declined to entertain any offers for the Irishman but used the call to initiate the recruitment of the enigmatic Frenchman for a cut-price fee. Somehow it feels appropriate that United’s Mr. Dependable, albeit unwittingly, played a subtle yet important role in landing Cantona placing the club onto the road to success.
The defender was purchased by Sir Alex in 1990 from Oldham for just £625,000, an absolute steal and if anyone deserves to be in with a shout of being Ferguson’s finest acquisition it’s United’s fullback from Cork. Irwin’s strength was that he was so damn reliable, no matter the situation if the Irishman was in the backline fans and teammates alike didn’t have to worry, Denis would win the ball back no ifs, buts or maybes.
The man was utterly nerveless, if United needed a penalty buried he’d step up to the mark (he converted 12 of his 14 spot-kicks), if a free-kick required dispatching Irwin would deliver, if a pinpoint corner was needed look no further than the fullback from Cork.
Irwin was a terrific defender but there were so many more bows to his string than given credit for but maybe the lack of acclaim suited the even-tempered fullback down to the ground. He was a consummate professional, an unassuming character and constantly performed to a high standard to the point of his excellence being taken for granted.
Yet look into his stats and you’ll find a consistent record of success. He currently lies eighth in all time appearances for United playing for the club a remarkable 529 times, though he will be overtaken by Wayne Rooney this season. Let’s put that appearance record into context though; he spent his first seven years of his football career at Leeds and Oldham respectively whilst ending his playing days with a two-year stint at Wolverhampton Wanderers. 12-years at United and nine years outside of Old Trafford places Irwin’s appearance record in completely new light. In the treble year only four outfield players stepped onto the pitch more times than Irwin, a testament to his seemingly enduring durability.
He scored 33 times in all competitions a more than tidy haul for a fullback and perhaps most astonishingly he is United’s second most decorated player of all time with 13 medals behind a certain Ryan Giggs. If a face were ever required to capture the image of understated brilliance Denis Irwin’s would surely fit the bill.
It looks amazing until you realise that Irwin was an archetypal Ferguson player, he was a quietly steely character with an insatiable desire to a win. Whatever he set his mind to he would ensure that he was amongst the best be it hurling, Gaelic football or even chess. A mild-mannered champion if ever there was one.
A Mister 8 out of 10, a player who’d cover both fullback roles in “any team of the decade” according to Alan Hansen and a Red legend whom Roy Keane opined would be in his Old Trafford all-time 11 “every day of the week”.
Maybe that’s what sets Irwin apart from the average “Mr. Dependable”, the Irishman’s qualities were recognised by those closely connected to the game but more importantly United’s second most decorated player was not just consistent, he was consistently excellent.
United fans may have been mesmerised by the genius of Cantona, thrilled by the trickery of Giggs, awed by the whirlwind that was Cristiano Ronaldo but there will always be room to appreciate the understated excellence of Denis Irwin; a fan’s player, a player’s player and a true United great.