Irwin taking exception to an off-key defence

Manchester United's stalwart left-back is eager for his team-mates to rediscover the rearguard prowess that underpinned last season's success.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

DENIS IRWIN does not give much away, be it freedom to a winger or an exposé to the Sunday tabloids. He is a mean man when it comes to football. So while the win over Croatia Zagreb on Wednesday will have put a smile back on the face of his United team-mates, Robert Prosinecki's last-minute goal for the home team will have left a bitter taste in the Irishman's celebratory beer afterwards.

DENIS IRWIN does not give much away, be it freedom to a winger or an exposé to the Sunday tabloids. He is a mean man when it comes to football. So while the win over Croatia Zagreb on Wednesday will have put a smile back on the face of his United team-mates, Robert Prosinecki's last-minute goal for the home team will have left a bitter taste in the Irishman's celebratory beer afterwards.

An eighth consecutive game without a clean sheet, making it 18 goals conceded in that time, is not the kind of defensive record which United's longest-serving player has become associated with these past nine and a half years. Nor does it help his case any when he is attempting to secure a new contract; also, if the visit of Aston Villa today has not taken the puff out of him, he has 34 candles to blow out tomorrow.

Despite the team's defensive inefficiency, he reckons his own form has been good, and good rather than great is what Sir Alex Ferguson has always expected and got from Irwin. As the manager says: "Irwin plays his football and lives his life at eight out of 10". In such a pressurised world that's not a bad average.

Yet United's defensive performance this season is giving everyone at Old Trafford cause for concern. Their "defence" of the treble - or at least, with the club's withdrawal from the FA Cup, the two competitions they are contesting - is becoming something of a misnomer. No one expected it to be easy, more like downright impossible, but who would have guessed that their defence, admittedly shorn of goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, would have been about as water-tight as a colander.

With the advent of squad rotation, continuity as a vital ingredient for success seems to have disappeared, but it cannot help having to make as many changes as United have done in defence this season, notably between the posts where they have had four keepers. Irwin does not accept that as an excuse, insisting that they have coped with changes in the past. But he did agree that they missed Schmeichel's presence.

"He was very loud," said the quiet man from Cork with typical understatement. "Massimo [Taibi] doesn't know much English and he's new to the game, while Mark [Bosnich] has only had a few games. Whoever followed Peter was going to be under an awful lot of pressure. It's normal to make mistakes early on. I seem to remember Peter, in his second game, coming window cleaning at Leeds [flapping at balls]."

After 400-odd games for the club, Irwin knows when a storm is brewing. "We definitely haven't been playing well for some time," he said. "If you look back about five weeks ago, to when we played Wimbledon, though we drew 1-1 they created quite a few chances. So did Sturm Graz and Liverpool. It's been on the cards, definitely. Chelsea was the final nail. Every team has a blip and we hoped that that was ours done and dusted, and then we conceded three at Tottenham."

If the rest of the United players are anything like Irwin, motivation, after last season's unbridled success, is not the reason, as Mick McCarthy, the Republic of Ireland manager, will confirm. He left Irwin out of a friendly against Argentina a year ago and never heard the last of it from a man who takes his football very seriously. To see off as many challengers as Irwin has done, particularly at United, requires true dedication and determination.

"Everyone wants to play at the highest level, so you can pit yourself against the top players," he said. "People talk about the money we earn but when we won the European Cup you could have given us anything and we wouldn't have swapped it for that moment."

Irwin has had quite a few "moments" in his career, although being released at the age of 20 on a free transfer from Elland Road and joining Chesterfield was not one of them. "Billy Bremner, God rest his soul, let me go," he said. "I'd been there for four years, two as a pro. It was a hell of a disappointment at the time but sometimes you need something like that to get you going again." It was a bad day for their great Yorkshire rivals, as was the day some years later when Howard Wilkinson rang Sir Alex for the purpose of taking Irwin back to Elland Road, only to end up selling them Eric Cantona.

It is hard to believe that someone who has been as successful for as long as Irwin has can even remember what disappointment feels like, yet woe betide anyone who tells him that he has not had any. "Disappointments? Plenty. We've come second a few times in the league. We've lost three League Cup finals and an FA Cup final - big disappointments on the day. That hurts a lot more than conceding five goals to Chelsea.

"The best team always wins the title, but we were particularly disappointed we didn't win it against Leeds, although you could say a couple of years we've won it others would have felt the same, like the year Newcastle lost it against us."

Similarly, it is difficult trying to remember games in which opposing players have got the better of Irwin. Luis Figo, against Barcelona last season, springs to mind. Irwin accepts that, but he was not the toughest, not by a long way. "John Barnes in his prime was easily the most difficult player I have faced," Irwin said. "He could dribble, he could pass, I think he had everything. To be honest, though, there are not that many wingers around now."

Modesty may become the man, but don't tell him he is shy. "That's an image the media have created," he said. "I'm laid-back, sure. I very rarely get uptight about anything, but I've been lucky. I've had a lot of stability over the last 14 years, two managers at club level and two at international level, that helps an awful lot and is very rare.

"Joe Royle and Willie Donachie [at Oldham] turned me around, but I learned a lot in the first couple of years at Old Trafford. Fergie knows so much and, to be honest, Kiddo [Brian Kidd] was a great influence."

Royle used to address Sir Alex as "Robber" for months after Irwin's £650,000 move and would probably be the first to snatch him back if he were released at the end of his testimonial year. But it seems unlikely.

Anyone who can win the European Cup yet allow his night to be slightly spoilt by United's level performance, as Sir Alex did, sets standards which only the very best can live up to. And he knows that Irwin is one of those who does.

Comments