The Leeside legends series: Quiet man Denis Irwin made a noise at the top level

The Leeside legends series: Quiet man Denis Irwin made a noise at the top level
Denis Irwin at the World Cup in 1994 for the Republic of Ireland. Picture: David Maher/SPORTSFILE

MODEST and unassuming, Denis Irwin was the most effective and respected defenders in the modern game.

Blessed with ability, mobility and vision, Denis was a vital cog in the Manchester United and the Republic of Ireland machines.

Denis Irwin slots home Ireland's first goal from the penalty spot against Paraguay in 1999. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE.
Denis Irwin slots home Ireland's first goal from the penalty spot against Paraguay in 1999. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE.

Irwin’s last game for United in May 2002 was an emotional day for the Togher man, marking the end of what was a glorious 12 years with the Red Devils.

Irwin wore the captain’s armband in the 0-0 draw with Charlton and at the final whistle received a standing ovation from the Theatre of Dreams faithful.

Born in October 1965, his first venture into the sporting arena was at St Finbarr’s GAA club before he joined Everton of Cork as a schoolboy, where his skill and determination quickly shone through.

A picture of a young Denis Irwin,  courtesy of Cummins Sports.
A picture of a young Denis Irwin,  courtesy of Cummins Sports.

Irwin signed professional forms with Leeds United in 1981 and made 72 appearances with the Yorkshire club before being released in 1985.

That turned out to be a godsend for Oldham Athletic, as Irwin helped them to the League Cup final and FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United in 1990.

His performances against United impressed Alex Ferguson, and he paid £625,000 for his services in the summer of 1990 as the United chief later admitted that Irwin was one his best buys ever.

The versatile defender missed out on Italia ’90 and was also on the losing United team in the League Cup final, but gained handsome compensation by winning a European Cup Winners Cup medal.

Winners:

Twelve months later he was back at Wembley for yet another League Cup final, but this time United were on the winner’s rostrum following their 1-0 victory over Nottingham Forest.

Irwin was ever-present in that 1992/93 season, playing 40 league games and scoring five goals — most notably a 30-yard piledriver against Coventry.

Denis Irwin on the ball for Manchester United in 1995. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Denis Irwin on the ball for Manchester United in 1995. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

He added five more Premiership titles, two FA Cup winner’s medals and a Champions League medal to his collection.

The departure of Brian McClair and Gary Pallister in the 1998 close season left a void, but Irwin remained on at Old Trafford and was the longest-serving professional player in Alex Ferguson’s squad.

Towards the end of the 1998/99 campaign, Irwin was harshly sent off in a league encounter against Liverpool for kicking the ball away after the referee had blown his whistle.

As a result, Irwin missed the FA Cup final against Newcastle but, true to his character, he came back to play a vital role in their memorable Champions League win over Bayern Munich in Barcelona.

Denis Irwin scores a penalty against Feyenoord. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA
Denis Irwin scores a penalty against Feyenoord. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA

Denis retired from international football in 2000 but signed another one-year extension to his Old Trafford contract to complete a full decade at the Manchester club.

At the time of his decision to quit international football, Irwin wrote in the Evening Echo: “It was reaching the stage where I was away more and more because of the demands of playing with Ireland.

“I am now able to give more time to my family and that’s something that will continue in the years to come.”

Denis Irwin and Roy Keane read about their on-field exploits in Orlando in 1994. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Denis Irwin and Roy Keane read about their on-field exploits in Orlando in 1994. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

His final year at United was celebrated with his testimonial against Manchester City at Old Trafford.

It turned out to be a full-blooded encounter, and Irwin was forced to leave the pitch injured.

Thankfully, it wasn’t a serious injury and he recovered in time to play his part in another successful season.

One of his best performances was against Leicester City at Filbert Street where his attacking skills set up two goals for Teddy Sheringham.

Ironically Leicester were once again the opposition provided when Irwin made a historic 500th appearance for United at Old Trafford.

Falling as it did on St Patrick’s Day, couldn’t have been timed better for the Irishman. He captained the side on that occasion, putting the seal on a memorable day.

Irwin finished his playing career at Wolverhampton Wanderers, the team he supported as a young boy.

Irwin with Wolves.
Irwin with Wolves.

After a slow start to the season, Wolves bounced back to force themselves into a play-off spot.

The date of May 26, 2003, will live long in the memory of Irwin, as he helped his team back into the Premiership with a 3-0 win over Sheffield United and, at the age of 37, Irwin was voted on the best 11 players in the Nationwide League for the season.

The quiet man of football always let his feet do the talking.

Roy Keane and Denis Irwin of Manchester United Legends following the Liam Miller Memorial match at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Roy Keane and Denis Irwin of Manchester United Legends following the Liam Miller Memorial match at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

FACTFILE: 

  • Denis Irwin played 500-plus times for Manchester United, during 12 years with the club.
  • After playing 72 times for Leeds United, he was released by Billy Bremner in 1985, at the age of 20.
  • Irwin has 56 caps for the Republic of Ireland national team, in which he scored four goals.
  • Denis is married to Jackie and they have three children, Liam, Katie, and Lauren.
  • Denis finished with United in 2002, before playing football for two more years, with Wolves.
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