I will begin the series by profiling the ultimate unsung hero - Denis Irwin.
When a manager has been at one club for twenty five years and you are described by the man himself as his best pound for pound signing then it is some accolade to be "awarded". So when Sir Alex Ferguson bestowed this title upon Denis Irwin, you can have no better testimony to the impact made by the shy and unassuming Irishman during the twelve years he patrolled the full back positions for Manchester United.
Denis began his career at Leeds before moving onto Oldham where he shot to prominence under the guidance of Joe Royle. He appeared on United's radar having played against the Reds in the semi final of the FA Cup in 1990 where he impressed with his calm defending and progressive support of his wide colleague. Irwin became one of Ferguson's primary targets following the first trophy under his stewardship as he had been forced to play the reliable Mike Phelan at right back in an unaccustomed role for much of that season.
Fergie got his man for a bargain fee of just £625,000 and from the moment he made his league debut against Coventry at Old Trafford, he did not look back and became a mainstay of the United backline for the next decade. What made Irwin stand out from his peers in the full back department was his sheer consistency. Whether he was stationed on the right or the left, he performed his role with minimum fuss and rarely dropping below a 7/10 rating week in week out. Although right footed, he was equally adept on either side and in fact played the majority of games on the left, getting a privileged view watching a young Ryan Giggs emerge and flourish as well as the exciting talent of Lee Sharpe in the early 1990's.
The primary role for any full back will always be defending and it was exceedingly rare that you saw Denis beaten for either pace or trickery. In addition, his positioning was first class and he formed a terrific partnership with Schmeichel, Parker, Bruce and Pallister culminating in United's first League Championship for over a quarter of a century. Although the big Dane and the centre backs often received the plaudits, Irwin was a major factor in the club's success. With the introduction of the likes of Cantona, Giggs and Kanchelskis, the attacking instincts of the shy Irishman began to flourish as confidence flooded throughout the side.
This was epitomised by one of my favourite United goals of all time against Spurs at Old Trafford in the 1992/93 season. Irwin picked up the ball on the left about 25 yards from goal, spotting Cantona hovering inside anticipating a pass. Once he had laid the ball inside, it would have been easy to stand still and admire the artistry of the enigmatic Frenchman but not Irwin. He had something in mind and made a dart for the penalty box knowing that Cantona could find him with an incisive pass. What followed was pure genius from Eric as he "stabbed" the ball with the outside of his foot that saw the ball drift over the static Spurs defence meaning that Denis could take the ball in his stride before firing left footed high into the net. The goal was immortalised in Ken Loach's film "Looking for Eric" where the great man himself described it as his favourite moment and waxed lyrically about the Irishman saying "I knew how clever he was.... left, right footed".
Check out Cantona's description of the goal at 1:30
For such a shy character like Denis to blossom into such a wonderful attacking weapon in his time at the club was a joy to behold. As confidence rose, he added to United's armoury at set pieces becoming a wonderful free kick taker from the edge of the box and soon took up the mantle of penalty taker which considering the high pressure nature of these showed the ice cool aspect of his character.
The other stand out goal from the Irishman's time at United came against Wimbledon after a wonderful passage of play that saw the whole team involved with some neat, intricate passing before Irwin was found in the box by Paul Ince. There was plenty still to do but after turning his opponent the wrong way, he fired his shot past the flailing keeper. A great end to a marvellous team goal that can be enjoyed again below:
You can imagine that Irwin was a manager's dream of a player. Similar to Scholes in this aspect, you would envisage him never being late for training, always putting in 100% whether in training or in match situations and also no occurrences of being seen staggering out of nighclubs at unruly hours. The boss could rest easy knowing that Denis would be relaxing at home with his family away from the glare of publicity and celebrity.
His roll of honour places him high up in the stakes of most decorated players in the game. In total, he made 511 starts for the club and scored 33 goals. Along the way, he was richly rewarded with seven Premier League titles, three FA Cups, a Champions League trophy, one League Cup and one Cup Winners Cup.
He was awarded a testimonial in 2000 against Manchester City but had to subbed after 37 minutes after a bad challenge by George Weah. He went on to play for Wolves (famously being part of a side that defeated United) before retiring at the age of 38.
For many, Irwin is remembered as one of United's best full backs of all time and for his all round ability, it is hard to argue. He played a major role in the club's success in the 1990's, rarely being injured yet always producing the goods on the pitch. When I decided to start this series looking back at some unsung heroes, Denis' was the first name that sprang to mind when considering candidates for inclusion. He now enjoys spending his time as a pundit in the media safe in the knowledge that his legendary status at Old Trafford is secure and to such a degree that future United full backs should aspire to reach such an esteemed level of service.
In future posts in this series, you can read about Jesper Blomqvist, John O'Shea, Henning Berg and Ronny Johnsen among others.
If you would like to leave your thoughts on Denis Irwin, please do so in the comments section below.