One morning last April, shortly after the Premiership title had been secured, Alex Ferguson sat down to talk about Denis Irwin. For close to half an hour, he waxed as lyrical as one would expect about the player he regards as the best fullback he’s worked with. When the cameras were finally turned off, Ferguson lingered in his chair.
“What exactly is this for again?” the Manchester United manager asked.
“It’s a documentary about Denis’s career for RTE,” we said.
“It’s about bloody time ye did one,” he replied.
There was a pause, and to fill the silence somebody blurted out that the latest league medal made Irwin the most decorated Irishman ever in English football.
That was the only prompting Ferguson needed. A fuse had been lit. Using the fingers on both hands, he began counting out the trophies with the passion of a schoolboy leafing through a deck of old Top Trumps’ cards in search of comforting stats. Listening to him reel off all those league and cup victories he had enjoyed with Irwin brought home the magnitude of the achievement.
“He is a role model to all the players in that dressing room of ours,” he said. “They can see him and see how a person can lead his life perfectly. There is a consistent nature about Denis that has allowed him to play to 35 years of age at the highest level. It’s very important to stress the point about a person being consistent in their nature. Denis is one of those types who leads his life at the same level all the time.
“One of his main attributes was playing [on] a very, very good team over the last decade and not needing any publicity for it. He was happy to play his role and be in the shadow of these high-profile players, That’s not the say he’s any less than these players; he’s up there with them all. The nature of the man allows him to live with that, and not everyone can do that you know? But Denis has never been the type to ask for recognition or look for it.”
The manner in which Irwin conducted his football life has yielded its own rewards. In an era when his teammates are some of the most recognizable faces in these islands, men who have willingly or not sacrificed so much normality on the altar of their fame, he is one of the fortunate ones. He can watch his son Liam play football, stroll to the local for a drink with his wife, Jackie, still enjoy the things they used to do when he was at Leeds United all those years ago. His salary has a few more zeroes on the end of it now but little else has changed.
“I’ve just been able to get on with my life,” Irwin said. ” You always get people coming up to you, but you never get the hassle that the likes of Becksie [David Beckham], or Giggsie [Ryan Giggs] or even Keaney [Roy Keane] can get. I’m just happy to be able to get on with my life. I’m forever grateful for that.”
Jackie Irwin was sitting in the living room of their home in Hale outside Manchester, answering questions about the complexity of trying to rear children properly when their father is lavishly paid to play football for one of the most glamorous teams in the world. Suddenly, there was a thunderclap outside, a flash of lightning and the first few drops of heavy rain started clanging off the windows.
“You’ll have to stop this for a minute,” she said, before shouting to her husband in the kitchen. “Denis, bring the washing in from the line?”
From the kitchen, one of the production crew shouted back: “You’re OK. He’s already out there looking after it.”
Amid the laughter, you realized how much substance there is to Ferguson’s psychoanalysis of his player. Denis Irwin the man is exactly like Denis Irwin the fullback. Consistent. Steady. Reliable. Quiet.
“I could never imagine Denis Irwin and Roy Keane sharing a room like they did for all those years,” said Jack Charlton, with a suitably unorthodox interpretation of those virtues. “Roy never said nothing, neither did Denis.
“They both waited until you spoke to them to speak to you. They listened but never spoke. Can you imagine two more boring people sharing a room? It’s probably just as well that they were both from Cork, because at least they understand each other.”
The presence of two Corkmen in the United dressing room has taught Ferguson a lot about the rivalries that pockmark the city, more than once he’s told the story of how each of his players claim the other comes from the rougher part of the town.
“When I first got into the Irish squad, they put me rooming with Denis,” Keane said. “They knew it would be a help to me and undoubtedly it was. Throughout our lives, throughout our careers, though, me and Denis have been friends, but I would never say we’ve been that close. He is one of the lads. When the team go for a drink and all that, Denis will be first there and last to leave. But I think Denis knows when to stop, whereas most of us don’t, which is a problem. He stays in the background a lot with Jackie and the kids and he deserves a lot of credit for that. There must have been opportunities over the years to make a few bob and exploit himself, but he hasn’t done that.”
Twenty years after swapping the Cork suburb of Togher for Elland Road, the only mystery is how somebody so reserved could stay at the top of such a competitive sport for so long. Undoubtedly, the genes promised the chance of future success. His father, Justin, was a good junior soccer player, and his grand-uncle Tom remains the only man to win an All-Ireland hurling medal and referee an All-Ireland hurling final. From the beginning, one quality marked this Irwin out from his peers.
“Denis hated losing,” said John Keane, a colleague on the Everton schoolboys’ team who was also scouted by several English clubs. “Like most good players, I suppose, he hated losing. He’d get cranky and have to be left alone for a while.”
Whether with Everton, or playing hurling and Gaelic football for St. Finnbarr’s and later, Colaiste Chriost Ri, success presented only one problem. It wasn’t unusual for him to bring home silverware and fling it under the stairs with his gearbag. The first his parents knew about it would be when Maura Irwin discovered some glistening trophy clinging to the dirty jersey. Modesty on that scale is not an affectation.
Having received permission to leave class early one afternoon at Colaiste Chriost Ri, Brother Theodore asked the rest of the students to give the departing Irwin a round of applause and their best wishes as he was off to play an international soccer match for Ireland. To that point, his classmates didn’t even know he was on the squad.
“I remember when Denis had decided he was heading off to Leeds, I thought this was a big mistake,” said Mick Carey, a teacher and coach at Chriost Ri and winner of three All-Ireland club football medals with St Finnbarr’s in the 1980s. “Here was a very intelligent young man, an extremely good Gaelic footballer, an extremely good hurler. I was trying to explain to him that if he stayed in Cork, he’d play senior hurling for Cork and he’d go to university instead of going to a club in the old second division. How wrong was I?”
Carey discovered earlier than most that beneath the veneer of humility, there beats a heart pulsing with ambition. Joining up with his first Irish schoolboy squad, Irwin was fascinated to hear the Dublin-based players talk about the various English clubs they had visited for trials. Immediately envious, he wanted some of that for himself. An apprenticeship at Elland Road represented an opportunity to see how he’d measure up at a time when there were still no more than 20 full-time Irish professionals in England.
In hindsight, this innate desire to constantly stretch himself may be the key to his success.
“I was in his house in England when the club rang him to tell him he was included in the Irish senior squad for the first time,” said Irwin’s oldest friend, Ray Duffy. “So I asked him, ‘Aren’t you excited?’ And he just said, ‘I have to go and play now, I have to prove myself.’ He was totally calm. It was just a case of him deciding he’d have to go and face a different challenge.”
That is the way of it with Irwin. Outwardly cool and unruffled yet privately driven. When Eddie Gray managed Leeds, he had a promising quartet of youngsters on his hands. From a group containing Tommy Wright, John Sheridan, Scott Sellars and Irwin, he worried most about the Corkman’s chances of enduring in the game. After Billy Bremner eventually released Irwin, Gray felt certain that his easygoing demeanor would militate against him ever recovering from the blow. Four years later, he found himself acting as the player’s agent in negotiations with Ferguson at Old Trafford and marveling at the manner in which he had battled back.
Never known for speaking too loudly outside the dressing room, perhaps the only public manifestation of Irwin’s extraordinary self-belief came when Mick McCarthy started him on the bench for a friendly against Argentina in 1998. More than three years later, he contends that it was the Irish manager asking him to prove himself when being introduced as a halftime substitute that rankled most. McCarthy argues that he merely asked Irwin to “prove me wrong.”
A crucial difference in semantics, he hung around for one more qualifying campaign after that, determined not to end his international career on so discordant a note.
“I felt that it taught them how to think and plan,” Ted Garvey said when asked why he once supplemented the curriculum at Togher national school with chess. “It was a great mental discipline for them because it taught them how to lose, which I felt was very important, and to be sporting about the losing.”
In learning the taste of defeat, none of his pupils developed as magnificent an obsession with winning as Irwin.
(first published in The Irish Echo, October, 2001)