When Manchester City spent close to £100 million on recruiting fullbacks in the summer, it generated much attention and debate. Some argued that it was a sign that transfer fees had jumped the shark, for others it illustrated the increased importance of the role in the modern game.
Antonio Conte’s switch to a 3-4-3 formation last season bamboozled many opposing coaches as Chelsea stormed to the league title. The system’s key element was the attacking option provided by their wing-backs. Given that football is the ultimate playground of borrowed ideas, others were bound to follow suit and adopt a system with three central defenders.
As the fullback position is now in vogue, it usually starts hypothetical conversations on players from previous decades. While that discussion quickly grates, it is tempting to speculate on how much Denis Irwin would fetch now. A key figure in Manchester United’s 1990s dominance, Irwin is often forgotten when recounting the greats of the Premier League era. This despite winning seven league titles and a Champions League medal and making over 500 appearances for the club.
The Cork native grew up trying his hand at multiple sports including hurling and gaelic football. As a child, he was earmarked as a future county player in both domestic sporting codes and was offered sports scholarships at various universities throughout the country when completing secondary school. Irwin was also a mean chess player and reached a national final in the late 70s. According to childhood friend and TV3 football commentator Trevor Welch, it impacted how his style of play.
“He actually played football like that. He would hit a pass, then say ‘here I am, back in the pocket again,’ always giving an option.”
Irwin began his top flight career at Leeds United, spending three years at Elland Road. He was allowed to leave on a free transfer though, a decision which would come back to haunt the Yorkshire club. Establishing himself at Oldham Athletic, Irwin helped them to an FA Cup semi-final and a League Cup final. In 1990, United came calling.
Frequently, Alex Ferguson references Irwin as the greatest signing he made as United manager and it’s quite easy to understand why. He was composed, diligent, positionally sound and exceedingly difficult to get the better of defensively. When presented with an opportunity to help out in attack, he was more than capable of doing so as well. Irwin was a free-kick master well before David Beckham took the title, possessed accurate deliveries from out wide and was rock solid from the penalty spot. In all, he scored 33 times in a red shirt from defence.
Arguably Irwin’s most impressive attribute was the seamlessness with which he transitioned across the flanks. Long before Philippe Lahm or Cesar Azpilicueta, the Irishman was a right-footer excelling at left-back. When asked to name the best fullbacks in the Premier League, Alan Hansen’s claimed that both slots were nailed down – Denis Irwin at right-back and Denis Irwin at left-back. On a recent edition of Match of the Day in which an all-time Premier League XI was chosen, Ian Wright was the only pundit to pick Irwin. “You try to go inside him and he was strong on the right side, outside him you couldn’t go.”
As the team dynamic shifted and new faces emerged – from the Robson Bruce and Hughes team to the class of ’92 – Irwin remained a constant presence throughout the nineties and into the early 21st century. Ferguson savoured his reliability and dedication to the cause, so much so that he retained a starting berth well into his mid-thirties.
“At Highbury in one game, he had a bad pass back in the last minute and [Dennis] Bergkamp came in and scored.” Ferguson recalled. “After the game the press said: ‘You must be disappointed in that pass back.’ I said: ‘Well, one mistake in 10 years isn’t bad.’ He was an unbelievable player.”
Ferguson’s crowning achievement was the treble win in 1999. There were so many crucial moments that season: the Yorke/Cole strike partnership, Ryan Giggs’ mazy winner against Arsenal, Roy Keane’s inspirational captain performance in the Champions League semi-final at Juventus, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Solskjaer’s defining goals in Barcelona that completed the job. Only four players made more appearances than Irwin’s 45 across all competitions – an indication of how integral he was. He has also made the seventh most appearances in the club’s history, despite spending half of his playing days elsewhere.
Irwin was a late entry to the international scene, only making his Ireland debut in 1990. He would play at the 1994 World Cup, but his decade representing his country was synonymous with near misses and play-off heartbreak. It’s a travesty that Ireland’s greatest fullback only received 56 caps and lined out in just one major tournament.
If Irwin is under-appreciated outside on a wider level, that certainly isn’t the case among Manchester United supporters. He was met by rapturous applause when he returned to Old Trafford with Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2004 and still works for the club to this day. Ferguson christened Irwin his ‘Mr Reliable’ and stated that he was the only guaranteed name on his team-sheet when asked to pick a team of the best players he managed. There can be few higher compliments.