Originally written for ManUtd24.
Cast your mind back ten years to 2002. We witnessed the broadcast of a tenuous and tedious Pepsi advert featuring David Beckham staring down a young Iker Casillas in a Wild West showdown. It was bad, camp and yet somehow, in someone’s mind, commercial; hawking carbonated drinks and brand Beckham through pastiche and golden ball’s very talented horse.
The summer of ’02 also saw Denis Irwin leave Old Trafford for Wolverhampton Wanderers, having played 511 games for United, scoring 33 goals and winning more trophies than he had fingers (deep breath … that’s seven Premier League titles, three FA cups, a League Cup, the Champions League, the Cup Winner’s Cup and the 1999 Intercontinental Cup).
Back to the ad. With Casillas downed and defeated, Roberto Carlos, the ultimate full-back glamour star, arrives ball in-hand, not seeking glory, honour or the defence of his team mates or colours, but to demand satisfaction for his interrupted haircut.
Had Irwin, so often trusted to take penalties in a team that featured the likes of Steve Bruce and Eric Cantona, interceded on Pepsi’s dustbowl shootout, he would have ridden in as if portrayed by Eastwood: a quiet yet formidable character whose unassuming, humble demeanour belies a lethal, quick-draw ability in a dead ball situation.
Carlos, the Brazilian rockstar wing-back with the ridiculously curvaceous free kicks, will probably forever be popularly remembered as the greatest full-back of Irwin’s era, but the Irishman’s considerable claims to such a title are not easy to dismiss.
He may not have looked the part of the superstar player, or boasted an arsenal of tricks and skills, but Irwin was an exquisite and clever footballer with an unfussy yet elegant style. He favoured the finesse of intelligence and functional technique rather than glossy, hollow flair. Genuinely two footed, he was potent and unpredictable going forward – happy to overload the flanks or cut inside – while also solid and dependable in defence. As a footballer, Denis Irwin had what some folks might call True Grit.
As the box-to-box midfielder fell out of fashion, and effectiveness, the tactically free and uncontested nature of the full-back position lent itself to complete footballers with the skill, imagination and fitness to marauder up field. While only five-foot-eight in height, Irwin was a stocky, square-built player with impressive stamina and a match winning appetite. Adept at left and right back, with the ball at his feet he could switch the play with ease, pass long or short, deliver from wide and offer a serious threat from set pieces.
Purchased from Oldham for £625,000 in 1990, the Irishman stayed at United for twelve years – an exceptional return for the outlay, especially considering the size and consistency of the club’s trophy haul during his years of service. No wonder Sir Alex believes the full-back was his greatest ever signing. In that time he endeared himself to Old Trafford faithful as a hardworking, no-nonsense professional toiling away – in stark contrast to the PR men whose powers and influence appear to grow in line with the game’s new-found appetite to consume itself and its integrity in exchange for profit.
If he were a Dutchman, or perhaps named Irwinho, his abilities may have been even more highly praised, although with his inclusion in a number of “best of the Premiership” team lists during the league’s 20 year anniversary it’s clear that many do remember the skill and charm of the Corkman bursting forward or harrying opponents from full-back.
Today Paul Scholes is United’s exceptional quiet man, lauded for his longevity at 38 – the age at which Irwin retired in 2004 when playing for Wolves. While the commercial travesties of the modern game have often run roughshod over the traditions and history of football’s institutions – Manchester United’s badge has been contracted and redesigned for branding reasons by marketing gurus – players such as these stand out as discreet honourable anti-icons.
Irwin is arguably Manchester United’s greatest ever left-back, one of the finest players to ever come out of Ireland and emphatically football’s answer to Eastwood’s Man With No Name.
Read more from the ManUtd24 Retrospective series here.