Football: Irwin still eager after all these years

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`If you don't have desire here you'll soon be on your way,' Manchester United's quiet survivor tells Glenn Moore

THURSDAY at The Cliff, Manchester United's training ground, the morning after the FA Cup defeat to Barnsley. At many clubs the first team would have the day off but United's are training, not as a punishment but to ease post-match stiffness - besides, half the first team had not played at Oakwell.

Behind the metal barriers around 50 fans, undeterred by the raw wind, watch the session, admire the cars and wait for autographs. By the wheelie bin, a local radio reporter interviews Gary Neville, nearby reps from Umbro and Diadora hover.

Alex Ferguson, with an appointment elsewhere, leaves Brian Kidd in charge of shooting practice and heads off. On the way out he slows to ask, partly to be sociable, partly from his desire to know every aspect of United business: "Who are you waiting for?"

"Denis Irwin," I reply. "Oh aye," said the United manager before driving away, no doubt thinking: "That's OK, solid, dependable Denis won't say anything controversial."

And he does not, except for the admission that the manager's rotation policy affects performance, which has been clear to most observers the past six weeks. But the perceptive Irwin can offer, in his soft Irish accent, the insights garnered from nearly eight years at Old Trafford.

Irwin, now 32, was in at the start of United's years of plenty. The manager rates his pounds 650,000 signing from Oldham (Joe Royle, then Oldham manager, addressed Ferguson as "Robber" for months after) on a par with Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel for value for money. Only the Dane, Brian McClair and Gary Pallister have played more games under Ferguson.

This morning, at Stamford Bridge, he plays his 370th, with another, even bigger match against Monaco in Monte Carlo on Wednesday.

After so many medals, and enough in the bank to secure his family's future, how does he maintain the hunger? As Brian Little discovered to his cost this season, not every player can.

It is, he said as we sat in the spartan canteen, not so much the winning as the fear of losing that drives United on. "The players will always have the desire here. If you don't you'll soon be on your way. We've had success but we've also had a lot of failures: we've lost two League titles, two League Cups, an FA Cup.

"The feeling you get after the game when you just miss out, like we had at West Ham [when a draw meant Blackburn pipped Manchester United to the 1994/95 title], is not something you want to go through again. As a successful team you are always going to have periods when you miss out. They are not nice but you need them. Last night was a disappointment. We'll miss that trip to Wembley. It is the greatest cup competition in the world and it is still important to us.

"What helps us in the long run is that every game is like a final no matter who you are playing - even the pre-season friendlies. Our club is under so much scrutiny we are always up for it. It is unusual for us to slip up against lesser teams as we have recently. Liverpool seem to lose to smaller clubs and you wonder why because every game is a big game for them as well.

"Some games," he concedes, "are bigger than others. It's more of a six- pointer on Saturday. They've become a top team so there'll be a bit of an edge. You just hope you don't get a 50-50 with Sparky [former team- mate Mark Hughes]. It's always banded around that we have a bad record against Chelsea but I don't think we have."

Indeed, Chelsea may be unbeaten at Old Trafford in five seasons but United have won four of the the last five matches in the capital, including victories by 4-0, 4-1 and 5-3.

Irwin missed the latter win with the knee injury caused by Paul Bosvelt's now infamous "tackle". Apart from his faxed commiseration there has been no further contact from the Dutchman but Irwin appears to regard it as part of the job.

The injury meant Irwin missed the Turin defeat which enabled Juventus to qualify for the last eight and he admits that result may haunt United. First, Monaco have to be dealt with. "It's a tough game. A lot of people say it's a good draw for us but they're going well in quite a tough league. They look a decent side with a lot of pace up front in [Thierry] Henry and [Victor] Ikpeba. Then there's the big lad [David] Trezeguet and John Collins, who can run and run and has a great left foot. It helps being at home in the second leg."

England expects and Irwin says the same is true within the club. "We have a lot more confidence after qualifying so easily from a tough group and with the extra experience of the young lads. The home win over Juventus was a big game for us; they had turned us over twice last year. Yet last year we had as good a chance of winning as any, we struggled through the League so expectation was low, but we hammered Porto and were very unfortunate to go out to Dortmund in the semi-final. We had a lot of chances in both games."

United approach the tie out of form and with injuries, the latest to succumb being Ryan Giggs. "We've had a dip but not like October last year. We're still creating chances. Rotating the squad makes it more difficult but the manager likes to keep us fresh this time of year. The quality in the squad shows in the way we've coped without Eric [Cantona], Roy [Keane], Maysie [David May], Jordi [Cruyff] and Karel [Poborsky]. But we have missed Roy this last month and Giggsy is a big loss. He gives us pace and creativity and he's been playing as well this year as any."

Keane had been out training, hitting the ball well for an injured player. "He looks good," said Irwin. "He's just started joining in little things."

Irwin came over from Cork several years before Keane, going to Leeds where, after 72 League games, he was surprisingly released by Billy Bremner at the age of 20. A useful Gaelic footballer, he contemplated heading back to Ireland but Royle and Oldham rescued him. The memory remains, however, and he makes the point that disappointment has been as much a part of his career as success.

As well as United's near-misses he has only qualified for one of four major tournaments with the Republic of Ireland, the 1994 World Cup, having won the first of 47 caps following Italia '90. Now 32, he said: "Missing out on this year's World Cup was a big disappointment; I probably won't get another chance. It's amazing how age creeps up on you. The years fly by and you get older without even thinking about it."

One bonus is his low public profile. "You have a different way of life as you get older. The young lads take most of the spotlight, the older lads can just get on with life."

For Irwin this primarily means relaxing with his family. "The manager doesn't encourage you to play golf, he feels it can get to your legs. It is a long way around the golf course when you don't play very well. It is drilled into you to relax when you go home, especially at this stage of the season. A lot of people get the idea it's an easy life but there is a lot of mental preparation, especially for Europe."

Aye, that's solid, dependable Denis talking. He may not shift many shirts in the superstore but the football men at Manchester United know his worth.