Denis Irwin has been regarded by Alex Ferguson as, pound for pound, his greatest ever signing but Jack Charlton also had massive respect for the defender too.
Much like the current ‘Matt Doherty vs Seamus Coleman’ selection dilemma that Stephen Kenny is facing, Jack Charlton’s early tenure as Ireland manager had one recurring headache, who would make his back-four but as soon as he was capped, Denis Irwin would become a stalwart.
After the euphoria of Euro ’88 and Italia ’90, Charlton knew that he had to rebuild his side and on 12 September 1990 (just after completing his move to Manchester United), Denis Irwin won his first Irish cap in a 1-0 win against Morocco at Dalymount Park.
A month later, the Corkonian would make his competitive international debut when Ireland started their Euro 1992 qualifying campaign with a 5–0 win over Turkey at Lansdowne Road.
It was the start of a glittering international career that would see Irwin collect 56 caps – scoring four goals – as he became one of the most consistent, underrated, and talented Irish players of all time.
Irwin is still the joint-most successful Irish footballer in history, a record he shares with fellow Manchester United stalwart Roy Keane, having won 19 trophies in his career.
However, things could have been very different after his early career hit a stumbling block at Leeds United. From 1983–1986, the versatile defender plied his trade at Elland Road and given Charlton’s strong connections to the club, he had his eye on Irwin for quite some time.
Jack Charlton on Denis Irwin
In his book, Jack Charlton’s American World Cup Diary, the Irish manager recounts his impression of Irwin’s early career and it’s clear that he’s very impressed with how the defender dealt with his rejection by Leeds.
“Ironically, there was a time when my old mate at Leeds United, Billy Bremner, didn’t think much of Irwin. That was during Billy’s term as manager at Elland Road. At the end of the 1988/89 season, he allowed him to leave on a free transfer.
“That kind of thing can break a young player; but in Denis’s case, it merely provided him with one more reason to succeed in English football. He was lucky, perhaps, inasmuch that Joe Royle, the manager of Oldham Athletic, came in for him almost immediately and what a shrewd signing that turned out to be.
“Whereas he had seldom got the chance of putting a lot of games back to back at Leeds, Oldham provided him with first-team status almost immediately, and how Denis reacted to that situation! He simply got better and better under Joe Royle’s tutorship, and by the time he left for United, there were few better full-backs in England.”
Alex Ferguson on Denis Irwin
Ferguson paid Oldham £625,000 to sign Irwin for Manchester United in June 1990. Even now, that’s still considered to be one of the greatest signings in the history of English football.
Irwin played 529 times for Man United. He was part of the Red Devils team that won seven Premier League titles, three FA Cups, the European Cup Winners Cup, the Champions League and the League Cup.
“Now there was a player, Denis Irwin,” Ferguson said in his second autobiography, written with Paul Hayward.
“We always called him eight out of ten Denis. So quick and nimble: quick-brained. Never let you down. There was never any bad publicity with him
Manchester United fans often comment about how lucky they got when Leeds sold Eric Cantona to them, however, it’s arguable that they should be similarly appreciative that they let Denis Irwin go to Oldham too because without that move, who knows how Irwin’s career would have gone?
This being said, Jack Charton was delighted that it worked out this way, just like every single Manchester United supporter.