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Chess master Denis Irwin reveals how he destroyed Eric Cantona at Manchester United

Manchester United
(Image credit: PA Images)

Denis Irwin became a legendary figure at Manchester United, thanks to his tough tackling and ability from set-pieces. Yet few United fans will know that his defending and attacking prowess wasn't limited only to the football field. The Irishman has told FourFourTwo that he was a talented chess player as a youngster too.

"I was never national chess champion but I played for my school and we finished second in the national championship," Irwin tells the February issue of FourFourTwo, which you can order online with free delivery here. "I was a decent chess player, don’t worry about that. I used to play Eric, but games wouldn’t last long. I’ve been watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix."


Those chess matches against Cantona almost never happened, with Irwin famously the subject of Leeds’ attention in the episode that took the Frenchman to Old Trafford in 1992. Does he wonder what might have happened had Ferguson asked him to head to swap Manchester for Yorkshire?

"That’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that," Irwin reflects. "Would I have wanted to leave? No. But when a manager doesn’t want you any more, you have a decision to make. Eric gave the team something different. We already had loads of runners – Giggsy, Sharpey, Incey, Andrei [Kanchelskis] and Brian McClair. Roy could run like the wind, too. Sparky [Mark Hughes] could hold the ball up. But we didn’t really have someone to play between the lines – we’d not seen that before. 

Irwin 322

(Image credit: Future)

"Cantona would do that; he played in the little holes. He was big, strong, and suited the Premier League. He had pace as well, which people don’t always associate with him, and he could score goals. We had four and a half years with Eric. I wish it was more, as he was a special player. I’ve not seen a player like that before and neither had opponents. He was a catalyst for us and for United to become the club they are now."

Cantona's arrival at Old Trafford kick-started one of the most dominant eras in Old Trafford history, with four Premier League titles and two FA Cups secured during the forward's time at the club. He was rarely on the losing side during that period, unless it was chess he was playing, and Irwin sitting opposite him. 

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