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DENIS IRWIN: A CORKMAN with Grace and Dignity

Denis who was born in Tivoli and reared in Togher and lived just a kick of a ball away from the headquarters of St Finbarr’s, one of the most famous GAA clubs in Ireland. Naturally, he played hurling and football with the Barrs and represented them on Cork U15 inter county teams. He made a name for himself as a promising all-round athlete, excelling at several disciplines and represented Cork in the Community Games in Mosney in athletics, the long puck (hurling) and chess.

In those days he accumulated a nice little haul of winning medals including a Colleges All Ireland football won with Chriost Rí at Croke Park. He was an exceptional all-round sportsman and was reminiscent of his granduncle Tom Irwin who, in the beginning of the twentieth century, was a historic sports figure, winning All Irelands with Cork in Hurling and Football, refereed All Ireland finals, was a champion sprinter, and long jumper, he played rugby, was a big hitting cricketer and was the country’s finest exponent in the long-puck. There was no mention of soccer in his CV although I would not be surprised if the Tom Irwin who played centre half for Cork City in the old Munster League in 1905 was the same Tom. Grandnephew Denis ensured that it would be as one of the greatest soccer players of all time that the Irwin name would be best remembered. 

Denis first kicked a soccer ball as an under eight with Maglin Grove in the Togher Street Leagues and from there he graduated to local team Everton. Even in his early days he had many admirers and was rated an exceptional player. With Everton he was a renowned free kick specialist, a skill that was later to win him worldwide fame with Man Utd and Ireland. He was capped by the Irish Schoolboys and it was while playing against Wales in Merthyr Tydfil, that he impressed the Leeds United’s scout who immediately arranged for a trial at Elland Road.

That trial was in December 1981 and things progressed rapidly afterwards and he signed apprentice forms with Leeds less than two months later. Denis continued his International career with the sixteens and youths and made his debut for Leeds as a centre back in the FA Cup against Scunthorpe. Eddie Gray switched Denis to right-full and it was in the number two jersey that he fulfilled the remaining years of his Leeds contract. After his transfer to Oldham in 1986 his game developed enormously and his outstanding displays against Man Utd in the 1990 FA Cup semi-finals resulted in his £700,000 transfer to Manchester. (see Exports for Irwin’s Football League career ) 

Young Irwin always wanted to be part of the Irish International set-up and now that he was a Man Utd player, his credentials wouldn’t be ignored for much longer. While awaiting his senior call-up, Denis was honoured by the selectors and played for his country at U21, U23 and B International levels. Ireland’s first game after their World Cup exploits was against Morocco at Dalymount Park. Denis was the only newcomer selected and though it was not the most inspiring of debuts, he was delighted to establish a foothold in Charlton’s squad.

The coaching with the Internationals differed from what he was used to. At United he was a polished full-back and Manager Alex Ferguson had this to say about him “He has two great feet, he is very quick, he’s a great defender, a quality attacking full-back and the best defender in the club over the past 10 years.”

With Ireland much of his attacking skills wouldn’t be needed, as Jack Charlton’s philosophy required Denis to play the ball over the top behind the opposition full backs, so that the notoriously successful Irish pressure game could be applied. Denis’s defensive game improved under Jack and he enjoyed seven great years with the Genial Geordie. With Ireland Denis was, as the label suggests, consistent and dependable. He never left his country down, which was why he was so disappointed when Jack Charlton’s successor Mick McCarthy, omitted him from the team. 

Denis got back into the team but was annoyed at Mick ‘s remarks that he should “go out and prove yourself” as he was being introduced as a substitute against Argentina in 1998. McCarthy denied having made that remark and insisted what he said was “go out and prove me wrong”. Afterwards, Denis went on to play some of his best football for Ireland in the International jersey and it was with widespread regret that his premature retirement from International football was accepted following his last appearance against Tunisia in 2000.

The highlight of Denis Irwin's International career was the 1-0 victory over Italy during US 94 and the tournament also provided him with a major disappointment when he was benched for the crunch tie versus Holland. Denis retired from International soccer so that he could devote more time to his family. He had a tremendous innings with Ireland and his collection of caps at seven different levels U15, U16, Youths, U21, U23, B, and Senior was unique. PLUNKETT CARTER Profile

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