Denis Irwin couldn’t hack it under Pep and Klopp? He’s the full-back Trent ought to aspire to be

·4-min read
Denis Irwin takes a penalty in a Manchester United legends match against Celtic. Credit: Alamy
Denis Irwin takes a penalty in a Manchester United legends match against Celtic. Credit: Alamy

Being the fools we are, we got suckered in by a bloke on Twitter suggesting Denis Irwin wasn’t very good. There’s a lot we can ignore in Elon’s hell pit, but not that…

“He’s a f***ing great player! Youse are all f***ing idiots.”

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Sir Alex Ferguson was talking about Premier League flop Juan Sebastian Veron so the former Manchester United manager would surely go in even harder if he was privy to some of the garbage being spouted about another of his favourites, Denis Irwin, in the last day or two.

Fergie rated Irwin so highly that, of all of the greats he managed at Old Trafford, it was the former full-back who was the first name and the only one inked on the team-sheet for his greatest XI. Not Cantona, Robson, Keane, Giggs or Rooney, but a £650,000 full-back bought from Oldham.

“Honestly, I would say Denis Irwin would be the one certainty to get in the team.”

So it’s a little odd that Irwin has been omitted from the latest Premier League Hall of Fame shortlist. Not that it would bother the Irishman. Nor would the some of the views thrust forth in the subsequent debate. Like this one…

A scalding take, that. One dripping with club and recency biases, and really, we should know better than to react. But Gary Neville couldn’t let it lie and amid the bleak, barren wilderness of the last knockings of an international break, we’ve little better to do.

‘Defend, attack, create and assist…’ Irwin fit the brief of the modern full-back outlined above arguably better than anyone currently doing it. Irwin is the full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold ought to aspire towards.

That isn’t to denigrate the Liverpool defender. Alexander-Arnold has his qualities, some of which are unmatched in the Premier League. But he very clearly has his weaknesses. Irwin had none.

‘Eight-out-of-ten Denis’ was what Ferguson called him, and both Neville and Roy Keane have referenced that number in relation to the sheer, relentless consistency of their former team-mate. Regardless of Alexander-Arnold’s better traits, even the staunchest, most blinkered Liverpool fan couldn’t reason that he has mastered the art of consistency.

Such stability and reliability was perhaps the only remarkable thing about Irwin. And maybe that’s why, as time has passed, his legacy is not what many reckon it ought to be. In 529 appearances for United – in which time, like Trent, he won the lot and much more of it – there might not be masses of material for YouTube highlights reels set to a God-awful soundtrack. But Irwin wasn’t a very euro-techno-house type.

Nothing he did in isolation was revolutionary or pioneering. Even when he made the net bulge from a free-kick, as he did on many, many occasions, he made it look effortless and simple. Same from the penalty spot. That was part of his job and he sought no more praise or attention for fulfilling his duties. No power stance; no over-complicated run-up; no crazy spin or swerve necessary. A few steps, up and over the wall, quick fist pump and back to his station.

He attacked in the same way he defended: with an absolute minimum of fuss. So rarely was he ever beaten, either by a piece of skill or sheer pace. For a stocky lad from Cork with a Lego haircut, Irwin could shift. But his positioning was so perfect, like other world-class defenders, he rarely had to dash.

It was the same whether he was on the right or left of United’s defence. Despite being right-footed, he spent the bulk of his career at Old Trafford at left-back. Might that make him a pioneer after all, as the Premier League’s first inverted full-back?

Nope. It just means he was as adept on either side, so good that he would put many modern players to shame. Despite all the hours, man-power and preparation that goes into tailoring their training from primary school, so many still struggle to step on the coach with their weaker foot first. If you didn’t know, you would be hard pushed to identify which side came more naturally to Irwin.

If he was Fergie’s best, we’d wager that he would do for Pep and Klopp too. Though the tweeter who triggered us enough to thrash this out, like Irwin in the 1990 ‘Battle of Old Trafford’, didn’t back down, which we have to admire. ‘Nowhere near as good as the modern-day elite full-back… nowhere near, pal’. Maybe not; he’s 57 now. But he’d probably do a job off the bench.

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