Irwin the model professional to take final bow

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The Independent Football

English football's most decorated current player decided last summer that this would be his last season in a career which has stretched from the miners' strike to the conflict in Iraq. As countless wingers have discovered, Denis Irwin is not for turning.

English football's most decorated current player decided last summer that this would be his last season in a career which has stretched from the miners' strike to the conflict in Iraq. As countless wingers have discovered, Denis Irwin is not for turning.

Irwin will today play his 902nd and final first-team match, for Wolverhampton Wanderers at home to Tottenham Hotspur, more than 20 years after making an inauspicious bow for Leeds United in an FA Cup replay at Scunthorpe's long-demolished Old Show Ground.

The 18-year-old Irishman cut an untypically ill-at-ease figure as a 5ft 8in centre-back in Leeds' 4-2 defeat. But it was as a world-class full-back that he would amass a medal collection with Manchester United to make King Midas look like a rust-magnet.

This afternoon there may well be tears for souvenirs, too, although Irwin was characteristically relaxed and reflective after his last training session yesterday. "I'm not normally a sentimental person but I think I might be a bit emotional," he said. "I feel I've done my stint.

"I was fine until February when we had Arsenal at home on Saturday and Leeds away on Tuesday. I was really tired after that. I'm 38 and I have to listen to what my body is telling me. It's been a long old season."

It has been a long old career. Now it is ending, with splendid symmetry, at Wolves. Irwin had never set foot inside Molineux until he arrived from Old Trafford two years ago. Yet this was the club which he followed, for no good reason other than an admiration for the striker John Richards, as a schoolboy in Cork who preferred hurling and Gaelic football.

Leeds were in turmoil - more symmetry - when Billy Bremner, in his wisdom, released him in 1986. Joe Royle took him to Oldham Athletic, where his consistency, reliability, pace and precision, allied to an ability to look equally comfortable on the right or left, caught Alex Ferguson's attention. Irwin performed outstandingly as Oldham took United to a replay in the FA Cup semi-finals of 1990, sealing a £650,000 switch which Royle still describes as "theft".

He went on to become one of only six players to make more than 500 appearances for United. While contemporaries like Lee Sharpe, Neil Webb and Paul Parker burned out or faded away, Irwin sailed on serenely, season after season. When Eric Cantona and Roy Keane courted controversy, he went on his quiet, professional way.

Leeds, ironically, tried to buy Irwin back in 1992. Ferguson not only told Howard Wilkinson it was "an absolute non-starter" but ended up persuading him to sell Cantona. United were soon celebrating their first title in 26 years, and Irwin's haul just kept on growing, with a European Cup-winner's medal added during the heady spring of '99.

"The night we beat Bayern Munich 2-1 in Barcelona would have to be the most memorable match of all," he said. "We went unbeaten from Christmas and also wrapped up the Premiership and FA Cup, all in the space of 10 days, though I missed Wembley through suspension."

Asked to nominate the best player he performed alongside, Irwin is spoilt for choice. "I only caught the last few years of Bryan Robson, but he was incredible. Mark Hughes was fantastic, Ryan Giggs as good as anyone. Same goes for Roy Keane, Paul Scholes. Then there was Paul McGrath with Ireland. He was in his thirties, playing on one good leg with a big cigar. What a player."

Irwin's toughest opponent is more easily identified. "Fortunately I tended to play against Giggsy only in training. Great footballer, if not the best card player I've known. I took a lot of money off him down the years -- us Irish aren't as stupid as we look! But John Barnes was a hell of a player in his Liverpool days. Usually, wingers can either pass the ball or dribble. He could do both. And he was big, but quick with it."

During Euro 2004, Irwin will be working as a pundit for RTE in Ireland, and his critique of Wolves' failure to survive suggests no one should equate his unassuming manner with blandness. "When we got promoted last May, I thought they'd have taken more of a gamble. I know they saw what happened to the Bradfords and Barnsleys, but it had taken 19 years to get up and it's a big, big club."

Irwin, who will miss the dressing-room but not the endless hotel rooms, expects to be out on the golf course as Wolves strive to return at the first attempt. First, though, there is one last game to be played. Wolves' manager, Dave Jones, said he had trained like a teenager this week.

"I've enjoyed that side of things. It's a great job, being out every morning in the fresh air. But I won't miss the playing or all the staying fit and focused. I've done all that for a long time and it's time to stop."

When he does, the ovation will be thunderous and many Manchester United fans at nearby Villa Park will wish they could join in. At Newcastle last Sunday, home supporters rose to him when he was substituted. "I haven't hogged the headlines, but just tried to get on with life and with the game. There's plenty of players like me," Irwin concluded, erroneously, but with his natural dignity intact to the end.