IN April 2001, shortly after another Premiership title had been secured, Alex Ferguson sat down to talk about Denis Irwin.
For close to half an hour, he waxed as lyrical as one would expect about the player he regarded as the best full-back he’d worked with. When the cameras were finally turned off, Ferguson lingered in his chair.
“What exactly is this for again?” the Manchester United manager asked.
“It’s a documentary about Denis’s career for RTÉ,” we said.
“It’s about bloody time ye did one,” he replied.
There was a pause, and to fill the silence somebody blurted out that the latest league medal made Irwin the most decorated Irishman ever in English football.
That was the only prompting Ferguson needed. A fuse had been lit. Using the fingers on both hands, he began counting out the trophies with the passion of a schoolboy leafing through a deck of old Top Trumps’ cards in search of comforting stats.
Listening to him reel off all those league and cup victories he had enjoyed with Irwin brought home the magnitude of the achievement.
“He is a role model to all the players in that dressing room of ours,” he said.
“They can see him and see how a person can lead his life perfectly. There is a consistent nature about Denis that has allowed him to play to 35 years of age at the highest level. It’s very important to stress the point about a person being consistent in their nature. Denis is one of those types who leads his life at the same level all the time.
“One of his main attributes was playing [on] a very, very good team over the last decade and not needing any publicity for it. He was happy to play his role and be in the shadow of these high-profile players; that’s not to say he’s any less than these players; he’s up there with them all.
“The nature of the man allows him to live with that, and not everyone can do that you know? But Denis has never been the type to ask for recognition or look for it.”
The manner in which Irwin conducted his football life yielded its own rewards. In an era when his team-mates were some of the most recognisable faces in these islands, men who, willingly or not, sacrificed so much normality on the altar of their fame, he is one of the fortunate ones.
Even at the height of his celebrity, he could watch his son Liam play football, stroll to the local for a drink with his wife, Jackie, still enjoy the things they used to do when he was at Leeds United all those years ago.
His salary had a few more zeroes on the end of it but little else had changed.
Not for him the common practice among so many footballers of his generation of ringing up Manchester clothes shops and asking them to open early so he could buy his gear before the public arrived.
For managing to enjoy the trappings of massive success without letting it impinge on his personal life, Irwin could be described as the luckiest player on that great Manchester United team.
Except that would be to suggest the situation was the result of good fortune. It wasn’t. It was the consequence of sensible living and a stoic personality that didn’t crave attention and could live without back-page headlines.
“I’ve just been able to get on with my life,” said Irwin.
“You always get people coming up to you, but you never get the hassle that the likes of Becksie [David Beckham], or Giggsie [Ryan Giggs] or even Keaney [Roy Keane] can get. I’m just happy to be able to get on with my life. I’m forever grateful for that.”
Later in the filming of that RTÉ documentary, Jackie Irwin was sitting in the living room of their home in Hale outside Manchester, answering questions about the complexity of trying to rear children properly when their father is lavishly paid to play football for one of the most glamorous teams in the world.
Suddenly, there was a thunderclap outside, a flash of lightning and the first few drops of heavy rain started clanging off the windows.
“You’ll have to stop this for a minute,” she said, before shouting to her husband in the kitchen. “Denis, bring the washing in from the line?”
From the kitchen, one of the production crew shouted back: “You’re OK. He’s already out there looking after it.”
Amid the laughter, you realised how much substance there is to Ferguson’s psychoanalysis of his player. Denis Irwin the man is exactly like Denis Irwin the fullback. Consistent. Steady. Reliable. Quiet.
“I could never imagine Denis Irwin and Roy Keane sharing a room like they did for all those years,” said Jack Charlton, with a suitably unorthodox interpretation of those virtues.
“Roy never said nothing, neither did Denis. They both waited until you spoke to them to speak to you. They listened but never spoke. Can you imagine two more boring people sharing a room? It’s probably just as well that they were both from Cork, because at least they understand each other.”
The presence of two Corkmen in the United dressing room taught Ferguson a lot about the rivalries that pockmark the city, more than once he told the story of how each of his players claim the other comes from the rougher part of the town.
“Denis says Roy is from the rough part of Cork and Roy says Denis is from the rough part of Cork,” said Ferguson.
“I don’t know who to believe here but there is a little bit of competition in the parts of Cork they come from.”
The common background and the parallel career paths have led some to incorrectly conclude that the pair were bosom buddies.
“When I first got into the Irish squad, they put me rooming with Denis,” Keane said.
“They knew it would be a help to me and undoubtedly it was. Throughout our lives, throughout our careers, though, me and Denis have been friends, but I would never say we’ve been that close. He is one of the lads. When the team go for a drink and all that, Denis will be first there and last to leave. But I think Denis knows when to stop, whereas most of us don’t, which is a problem.
“He stays in the background a lot with Jackie and the kids and he deserves a lot of credit for that. There must have been opportunities over the years to make a few bob and exploit himself, but he hasn’t done that.”
More than two decades after he swapped the Cork suburb of Togher for Elland Road, the only mystery is how somebody so reserved could stay at the top of such a competitive sport for so long.
Undoubtedly, the genes promised some chance of future success. His father, Justin, was a good junior soccer player, and his grand-uncle Tom was a top-class cricketer and remains the only man to win an All-Ireland hurling medal and referee an All-Ireland hurling final. From the beginning, one quality marked this Irwin out from his peers.
“Denis hated losing,” said John Keane, a colleague on the Everton schoolboys’ team who was also scouted by several English clubs. “Like most good players, I suppose, he hated losing. He’d get cranky and have to be left alone for a while.”
Whether it was soccer with Maglin Grove and then Everton, or playing hurling and Gaelic football for St Finbarr’s and later, Coláiste Chríost Rí, success presented only one problem. It wasn’t unusual for him to bring home silverware and fling it under the stairs with his gearbag. The first his parents knew about it would be when Maura Irwin discovered some glistening trophy clinging to the dirty jersey. Modesty on that scale is not an affectation.
Having received permission to leave class early one afternoon at Coláiste Chríost Rí, Brother Theodore asked the rest of the students to give the departing Irwin a round of applause and their best wishes as he was off to play an international soccer match for Ireland. To that point, his classmates didn’t even know he was on the squad.
“I remember when Denis had decided he was heading off to Leeds, I thought this was a big mistake,” said Mick Carey, a teacher and coach at Críost Rí and winner of three All-Ireland club football medals with St Finbarr’s in the 1980s.
“Here was a very intelligent young man, an extremely good Gaelic footballer, an extremely good hurler. I was trying to explain to him that if he stayed in Cork, he’d play senior hurling for Cork and he’d go to university instead of going to a club in the old second division. How wrong was I?”
Carey discovered earlier than most that beneath the veneer of humility, there beats a heart pulsing with ambition. Joining up with his first Irish schoolboy squad, Irwin was fascinated to hear the Dublin-based players talk about the various English clubs they had visited for trials. Immediately envious, he wanted some of that for himself. An apprenticeship at Elland Road represented an opportunity to see how he’d measure up at a time when there were still no more than 20 full-time Irish professionals in England.
In hindsight, this innate desire to constantly stretch himself may be the key to his success.
“I was in his house in England when the club rang him to tell him he was included in the Irish senior squad for the first time,” said Irwin’s oldest friend, Ray Duffy.
“So I asked him, ‘Aren’t you excited?’ And he just said, ‘I have to go and play now, I have to prove myself.’ He was totally calm. It was just a case of him deciding he’d have to go and face a different challenge.”
That is the way of it with Irwin. Outwardly cool and unruffled yet privately driven. When Eddie Gray managed Leeds, he had a promising quartet of youngsters on his hands. From a group containing Tommy Wright, John Sheridan, Scott Sellars and Irwin, he worried most about the Corkman’s chances of enduring in the game. After Billy Bremner eventually released Irwin, Gray felt certain that his easygoing demeanor would militate against him ever recovering from the blow.
Four years later, he found himself acting as the player’s agent in negotiations with Ferguson at Old Trafford and marveling at the manner in which he had battled back. His three pals in the apprentice days at Leeds all had good professional careers. He was the only one to become great.
I felt that it taught them how to think and plan,” Ted Garvey said when asked why he once supplemented the curriculum at Togher national school with chess.
“It was a great mental discipline for them because it taught them how to lose, which I felt was important, and to be sporting about the losing.”
In learning the taste of defeat, none of his pupils developed as magnificent an obsession with winning as Irwin.
Never known for speaking too loudly outside the dressing room, perhaps the only public manifestation of Irwin’s extraordinary self-belief came when Mick McCarthy started him on the bench for a friendly against Argentina in 1998. More than three years later, he contends that it was the Irish manager asking him to prove himself when being introduced as a half-time substitute that rankled most.
McCarthy argues that he merely asked Irwin to “prove me wrong.”
A crucial difference in semantics, he hung around for one more qualifying campaign after that, determined not to end his international career on so discordant a note.
During the failed attempt to reach Euro 2000, Irwin was magnificent in the home victories over Croatia and Yugoslavia, two of the better results achieved by any Irish team in the post-Charlton era. Although in both games, as so often, it was the more headline-friendly contributions of Roy Keane that took the plaudits, Irwin’s understated excellence at the back had been vital. Against Turkey in the first leg of the play-off at Lansdowne Road in November, 1999, it was also his brazen and determined run down the inside-left channel that culminated in David Connolly passing for Robbie Keane to score.
That he missed the return leg and the chance to win his 57th cap due to injury seriously weakened the Irish squad for Bursa because, even if McCarthy was fortunate to have a stock of decent full-backs available, none ever compared to Irwin. To understand the regard his younger colleagues had for him, it’s instructive to note the response of Kenny Cunningham to a question about how Wimbledon fans used to feel he was their very own Denis Irwin.
“Ridiculous,” said Cunningham. “Denis is in a class of his own.”
Despite winning 56 caps, there is a school of thought that his international career never quite matched his club outings for lustre.
Apart from his mishandling by McCarthy, there was a period in the early 1990s when Jack Charlton for too long resisted the urge to promote the then Oldham Athletic full-back ahead of the less-gifted Chris Morris.
After Irwin starred in an Ireland B team victory over England B at Turner’s Cross in early 1990, it was imagined that Charlton would surely bring him to Italia 90. In the end, the old conservative went for the more experienced option.
Four years later, Irwin suffered in the heat in America and, following his suspension for two bookings, failed to dislodge Gary Kelly for the second-round defeat by Holland.
How much that experience hurt was most visibly demonstrated on an October night in Skopje in 1999. Seconds after Govran Stavreski headed an injury-time equalizer for Macedonia that robbed Ireland of automatic qualification for Euro 2000, Irwin stomped around the six-yard box, waving his hands There was a sense of a player realising his last chance of another major tournament was slipping away. Three months later, the first Irishman to be capped at all six levels announced his retirement from international football.
The departure from United was much less painful. After 12 years, 527 first-team appearances, seven Premier League titles, a European Cup, a European Cup-Winners’ Cup, two FA Cups and a League Cup, Ferguson made him captain for his final game at Old Trafford in May, 2002. He was substituted 20 minutes from the end so the fans could acknowledge him properly. The ovations were heart-felt yet it was arguably surpassed by an incident nearly two years later.
Enjoying a swansong with Wolverhampton Wanderers — where he added a promotion from the Championship to his litany of honours — he came up against his former team at Molineux.
As the players lined up for the second half that day, the United away support, a group of fans considerably more knowledgeable and devout than many of the day-trippers to Old Trafford, rose and began chanting Irwin’s name. They knew exactly what he did for the club, and though he was wearing the old gold off Wolves, they wanted him to understand how they felt.
In an unlikely 1-0 victory that day, Irwin’s typically incisive header set up Kenny Miller’s winning goal and, during a fierce rearguard action in the last 15 minutes, he was, inevitably, leading by example.
Offered the chance by a BBC interviewer afterwards to gloat about putting one over on his former club, he refused to take the bait. That was the classy thing to do and class had been the hallmark of his every move over the previous two decades.
On May 15, 2004, Irwin was substituted one minute from the end of Wolves’ last game of the Premier League season against Tottenham. The Molineux crowd rose to give him a standing ovation as he walked off after his 902nd and final professional appearance.
“The biggest honour I can give Denis,” said then Wolves’ manager Dave Jones, “is to say that he has trained this week as if it was his first.”
What more would any of us have expected?