This is the fourth in a series of posts titled 'The Forgotten Man', looking at the unsung heroes of clubs that don't get the enduring recognition their contribution to the club deserves. This week, we'll take a look at Manchester United legend Denis Irwin.
Ask any United fan who their best ever starting XI were, and the automatic names that appear include George Best, Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham and Denis Law. However, there's always only one name on their lips to fill the left-back position, and he's this week's Forgotten Man. His name is Denis Irwin.
Irwin began at a Second Division Leeds United team in 1983, who brought him through slowly but surely into the league squad. He played a near-full season in 1984-85, missing just one league game, but the 20 year-old moved to Oldham Athletic in May 1986 on a free transfer, after just 12 appearances, in 1986. In total, Irwin managed seventy-two league appearances in three seasons, scoring just the one goal.
He enjoyed a good spell at Oldham, finishing 3rd in the Second Division in his first full season at the club, a place above former club Leeds. 1987-88 wasn't as successful, but Irwin was making a name for himself, and the bigger, First Division teams were beginning to cast their eyes over his illustrious talents.
A poor season for Oldham followed, but Irwin was the stalwart of the team, missing a handful of matches through fatigue. His final season at the club was one of more success, finishing just three points from the play-offs, reaching the semi-finals of the FA Cup (against eventual suitors Manchester United), and the final of the League Cup, losing 1-0 to Nottingham Forest. His performance against United was enough to convince Alex Ferguson to sign him, and a £625,000 cheque later, 24 year-old Irwin became a United player.
Irwin proved to be an instant success. In his first full season in Manchester, he made the second-highest number of appearances for an outfield player, behind Brian McClair. He reached the final of the League Cup, and added the first medal of his career to his personal trophy cabinet - a European Cup Winner's Cup win, against Barcelona. The season also brought about his first international cap, representing the Republic of Ireland against Morocco.
He became a permanent fixture in the United squad, adding trophy after trophy during the golden era at Old Trafford. The League Cup in 1992; the Premier League and Charity Shield in 1993; the Premier League and FA Cup Double in 1994; another PL trophy in 1995; a second Double plus the Charity Shield in 1996; the League and Charity Shield in 1997; the illustrious Treble, alongside the Intercontinental Cup in 1999; and the Premier League in both 2000 and 2001.
His impressive displays, alongside his versatility on either side of the defence made him indispensable at Old Trafford. Alongside this, his brilliant and calm nature through penalty kicks made him the preferred choice to slam it in from twelve yards. A partnership with Gary Neville on the right, with Ronny Johnson and Jaap Stam in the centre of defence, made for an unreal steel wall at the back of the team, and ultimately won a Champions League trophy for the team.
Irwin made 529 appearances for the club, scoring an impressive 33 goals. With Phil Neville coming through the ranks, Irwin played fewer and fewer games, and at the end of his contract, Irwin left the club in 2002, and joined promotion-chasing Wolverhampton Wanderers. His experience was enough to guide the team through Division One, and helped them reach the Play-Off Final, and win, taking them back into the Premiership.
Irwin eventually retired at the end of the 2003-04 season, with Wolves returning straight back to Division One. He made 682 league appearances, scoring 29 league goals, and his ability was recognised having been named in the Premier League 'Team of the Decade', in 2002.
He began media work for MUTV, and has also worked for RTE and written columns for Irish newspapers. Unlike other Man United legends, his name isn't immediately on the tip of your tongue when the word 'legend' appears, with the likes of the aforementioned Ronaldo, Best and Law, alongside players like Bobby Charlton, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs coming way, way before Irwin. But his contribution to the club cannot be overlooked, and his abilities deserve more recognition throughout both Old Trafford and football in general. Not many players have helped lead a team throughout a full decade of sporting glory.
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Dennis Irwin... a legend!!! I remember playing football with him and my cousin when i was 6... My Cousin was in the Oldham youth team and Dennis used to help out with the training before he moved.
I think i read somewhere that Fergie still rates him as his "best buy"... although i have seen that he's said that about Hughes and Cantona so I don't know, £500k for a player like Irwin and the service United got... #AMAZING
A true legend indeed. Like Scholes he was never one to court publicity - he just got on with the job and was consistently at least a 7/10 every week (not "9/10 every week without question" as Paddy Crerand claimed last night but still impressive!).
hall of fame hall of fame