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FFT meets Denis Irwin: “Nothing can top the 1999 Manchester United team – but our ’94 side was such a joy to play in”

Denis Irwin
(Image credit: Getty)

Denis Irwin was Sir Alex Ferguson's Mr Dependable and someone he'd rather pick in his side than the host of multi-million-pound marquee signings that he later made. 

So there was never any doubt that the Irishman was going to get into our top 100 Premier League players of all time. The full-back became one of the most reliably consistent footballers in English league history, as one of the few names who stayed across multiple teams that brought silverware back to Old Trafford.

THE FULL LIST 100 greatest footballers in England's top flight since 1992

But which of those teams were the best? Was it really a case of him or Cantona? And is he really a chess king?

Alex Ferguson said you were the only player guaranteed to make his best Manchester United XI. Why were you so loved by him?

I went in and just got about my job. I wasn’t a star player, but Fergie still appreciated me. I didn’t cause him too much stress. My peers appreciated what I did, too. Maybe to the fan in the street I didn’t make headlines because I wasn’t a star player, but I didn’t want the limelight. I worked my socks off, trained hard and tried to learn from mistakes. Gary Neville was the same as me. Full-backs were pawns on a chessboard when I played. They’re more important now in the game. We had Giggsy or Becks in front of our full-backs to cross the ball. Twenty years ago, if one full-back went forward, the other stayed back. Now, both go forward in the top teams.

How did you see the team develop from one that hadn’t won the title in years, to one that ruled? How did you keep up? 

Personally, I was getting better. Being let go by Leeds at 20 [in 1986] was a major turning point. It motivated me, and I had a couple of great years at Oldham where my confidence lifted back up. I felt ready for a big club when I joined United, who’d just won the FA Cup but finished 13th [in 1989-90]. We won the Cup Winners’ Cup the following year, when Peter Schmeichel and Paul Parker arrived – then the League Cup in 1992, after which Eric [Cantona] signed. We had young lads like Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe, who were flying. We finally won the league in 1993, the year we bought Roy [Keane]. We were building confidence all the time, bringing good players in. Winning that first title was a big deal, because it gave us the know-how of how to do it. It was a tree with branches getting bigger and stronger.

You were famously the subject of Leeds’ attention in the episode that took Cantona to Old Trafford. Would you have gone to Elland Road if Fergie had said yes to them?

That’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that. 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 in the squad, like Giggsy, Sharpey, Incey, Brian McClair and Andrei Kanchelskis, while Sparky [Mark Hughes] could hold the ball up extremely well. But we didn’t really have someone to play between the lines – we’d not seen that before. 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.

Denis Irwin

(Image credit: Getty)

How satisfying was scoring that excellent free-kick against Liverpool in the famous 3-3 draw of January 1994?

Very. Liverpool had been dominant during the ’70s and ’80s. They’d had their time, and Arsenal had also won the league a couple of times. But we still needed to win the league, and were well placed when we finally did: the ground was expanded, the merchandise sold. When I joined the club, the physio handed us hats from one of his mate’s firms – Morson – for the celebration photos whenever we won trophies. Imagine that now!

Which was the strongest title-winning United team you were part of, and why?

The 1994 team was physical, powerful and difficult to beat. The league was much more physical, and football changed between ’94 and ’99. The ’94 side weren’t as easy on the eye as the ’99 team, and there weren’t as many options, but we had guts and won the Double. I loved playing with that team, and the XI was pretty set. Nothing can top ’99 – we had drive in abundance, and goalscorers all over the pitch. I’m one of the few that played in both teams, but that ’94 side was such a joy to play in.

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You joined Wolves in the second tier, but had one last crack at the Premier League with them in 2003-04. Did that final hurrah in the top flight come as a surprise?

I was 36 when I left United in 2002, and felt like I could get another year out of my body. I’d supported Wolves when I was growing up – they weren’t a bad team in the mid-70s.

A lot of my mates were Liverpool fans, so I’m glad I didn’t go down that route! I played 52 games during my first season at Wolves, and thoroughly enjoyed it – we got to the play-off final and beat Sheffield United 3-0 to go up. I contemplated calling it a day, as I was 37, but they convinced me to play for another season. The second year was a difficult one. We didn’t spend a lot of money and our two best players, Joleon Lescott and Matt Murray, were injured, but it was good to be in the Premier League again. I was disappointed to be relegated for the first time in my career.

We’ve learned that you were a national chess champion in your youth – what’s the story there?!

I wasn’t a national chess champion. I played for my school and we finished second in the national championship. 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...

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