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Manchester United Idols: Denis Irwin – the best left-back for years, a magnificent player and role model

Denis Irwin signed for Manchester United on the 8 June 1990, nearly 30 years ago, signing for a fee of just £625,000 from Oldham Athletic. Just 24 at the time he was signed by Sir Alex Ferguson, Irwin has played for Leeds United from 1983-86, signing for Oldham afterwards. Irwin played 82 times for Leeds, scoring one goal, also playing 204 times for Oldham, scoring seven goals in all competitions played. Irwin turned into a remarkable left-back under Ferguson at United, becoming one of the cogs needed to keep the team on the right track – the road to success.

That is exactly where Ferguson took United, Irwin one of the players who help that success come to the Theatre of Dreams. The summer Irwin arrived at the club, United had just won their first major trophy under Ferguson, who has managed the club since the 6 November 1986, lifting the FA Cup in 1990 after beating Crystal Palace 1-0 in the replay, a 3-3 draw some days before. Lee Martin scored the goal which is suggested saved Ferguson’s career at the club, which was the right decision as the glory days were close to arriving.

Irwin made his United debut on Saturday 18 August 1990 in the FA Charity Shield against 18-time league winners Liverpool, incidentally, this is still the number of league titles they have today, some 30 years later, which will probably change if the season is completed. It was a 1-1 draw with Clayton Blackmore opening the scoring in the 44th minute, but John Barnes equalised six minutes into the second half with the trophy being shared. During the 1990/91 season, Irwin made 52 appearances (50 starts), not yet scoring his debut goal.

United did end that season by beating Barcelona 2-1 in Rotterdam, lifting the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup, Ferguson’s first European trophy at United, which gave the club the hunger for winning titles. In the 1991/92 season, Irwin scored his first goal for the club, the third in a 3-0 victory over Norwich City in the Football League Division One, the final season of the top-flight in its current form with the Premier League starting the following season. United beat Red Star Belgrade in November 1991 to win the UEFA Super Cup, the only time United have lifted the cup, despite having two more chances to date, a fourth coming this August.

Irwin had scored four goals for United by the end of 1991, scoring his second goal in a 3-1 victory over Chelsea, his third and fourth in a 6-3 victory over former club Oldham Athletic on Boxing Day that year. Irwin had become one of the players Ferguson needed to return the club to winning ways, the titles were coming. Irwin had scored four goals for United by the end of 1991, scoring his second goal in a 3-1 victory over Chelsea, his third and fourth in a 6-3 victory over former club Oldham Athletic on Boxing Day that year.

Irwin had become one of the players Ferguson needed to return the club to winning ways, the titles were coming. United lifted the League Cup towards the end of the 1991/92 season, beating Nottingham Forest 1-0 at Wembley with Brian McClair scoring the only goal of the match in the 14th minute. That was four trophies for Ferguson at the start of his United career, three with Irwin as part of the team, which was not bad for a team who last won a trophy in 1977 after beating Liverpool 2-1 to lift the FA Cup.

United’s last league title came in 1975, winning the Football League Division Two title, their last top-flight league title came in 1967, United seventh league title. At the start of the 1992/93 Premiership season, Irwin had already made 103 appearances for United, scoring four goals. It was about to get much better for Irwin, who made another 48 appearances that season, increasing on the four goals he had scored the previous season, scoring five in the opening season of the Premier League. United lifted the Premier League trophy that season, their eighth league title, putting them 10 behind Liverpool.

Irwin went only two seasons without scoring a single goal, his first (1990/91) and his last (2001/02). During the 1993/94 season, Irwin made 62 appearances, scoring four goals and lifting three trophies for United, the FA Charity Shield at the start of the season and the Premier League and FA Cup double at the end of the season, United ninth league title. During the next four seasons, 1994/95 – 1997/98, Irwin made a total of 173 appearances, scoring 12 goals and helping United lift six more trophies; The FA Charity Shield three times, the Premier League twice, United’s tenth and eleventh league titles, and the FA Cup, beating Liverpool 1-0 with an Eric Cantona goal at Wembley in 1996.

Irwin was the player Ferguson wanted him to become, a player that helped guide United from failing to achieve to the team which dominated throughout the 1990’s. The following season, United would do what no other English club have ever achieved. Irwin made 48 appearances in the treble-winning season, scoring three goals. United won the Premier League after a victory over Tottenham Hotspur, beat Newcastle United to lift the FA Cup, then four days later, did the unimaginable, beating Bayern Munich from 1-0 down at the Nou Camp, scoring twice, both from corners in injury time putting their name on the trophy.

United won their twelfth league title and their second European Cup. Liverpool still had 18 league titles, and still do, winning the European Cup four times back then – six times now. The next two seasons saw Irwin make 72 appearances for United, scoring five goals, his last five goals for the club. It did result in United winning the Premier League title a further two times, three in a row, meaning they now had fourteen league titles, just four behind Liverpool. United also lifted the Intercontinental Cup in Japan, which was later replaced by the FIFA Club World Cup.

Irwin made 23 appearances, scoring no goals in his final season at the club, 2001/02 joining Wolverhampton Wanderers on a free transfer where he made a total of 85 appearances, scoring two goals. Irwin placed for United for twelve seasons, making 529 appearances and scoring a total of 33 goals – also lifting twenty trophies; seven Premier League titles, three FA Cup trophies, one League Cup, five FA Charity Shields, one UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup, one UEFA Super Cup, one UEFA Champions League and one Intercontinental Cup. Not a bad career for the Irishman.

Of course, Irwin could be a great role model to the younger players in today’s game, not just at Manchester United, but for every club. Irwin was a mainstay at United during his time at the club, earning his name on the team sheet every time. To score 33 goals from a left back position is not all that bad either, but it was his marauding runs up the flank and his precise set-pieces that made him much more of an option. Luke Shaw especially could learn something from Irwin, who now hold an ambassadorial role at the club.

Shaw did not have the best start to his United career with some poor performances, his fitness record and lastly that double leg break suffered in 2016 but this season, he seems to have kicked on performance wise and has been playing a better standard of football. Brandon Williams, who came through the clubs academy has made many appearances in the left-back role this season has been a factor in Shaw improving with the pair vying for the position at the club. Irwin could teach both of them something, which could enhance their careers.

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