Reflecting on the storied careers of Irish soccer greats, Green Giants is a feature that will be written by SWAI members, tapping into their knowledge, experience and interaction with some of the best players to pull on a Republic of Ireland jersey.
This latest profile is on former defender Denis Irwin.
By Noel Spillane (Evening Echo)
One of Manchester United’s most decorated players, Denis Irwin was always quite, calm and unassuming during a glittering career at Old Trafford and at Oldham Athlectic before that.
Irwin and Terry Phelan were released on the same day by then Leeds United manager Billy Bremner at Elland Road and they subsequently went on to play for Republic of Ireland at right and left-back. Some would argue that Irwin established himself as one of Ireland’s finest ever full-backs.
Irwin came from Argideen Estate in Togher, County Cork and played his schoolboy and youths football with Everton when a man named Tom Twomey was team manager. I first met Irwin at his home on the southside one summer’s evening when myself and cameraman Eddie O’Hare were on assignment – Irwin was off to join the mighty Leeds.
I remember we called to the house around tea-time and his mother, Maura answered the door and ushered us into the front room. The living room was awash with medals, cups, trophies and silverware for the teenage Irwin, I think he was about 14 at the time, not only playing soccer for the local Everton but hurling and football for St Finbarr’s and his school team, Coláiste Chriost Ri, and he also had medals for winning various chess competitions!
His mum called up the stairs to him to let him know the two lads from ‘de paper’ were there and would he pop down to them. Well we had a cup of tea and biscuits there in the living room, admiring all the medals and so on, biding our time but half an hour later and there was still no sign of young Irwin. His mother came back into us again and basically said that he was too shy and embarrassed to come down from his bedroom to talk to us. It took some gentle persuasion to finally get a red-faced teenager to come and sit uneasily on the arm of a chair and chat to us and pose for one or two photos with all the silverware as a backdrop.
It was a torturous and difficult interview for me as his replies and responses were mono-syllabic but we got there and you could see the relief on his face when we motioned to get up and go having wished him all the best at Leeds.
That story was a long time ago and over the years, Eddie and I build up a strong relationship with him (I was even invited to his wedding in Togher and Eddie was the official photographer on the day) that has lasted to this day. We travelled over to Manchester on a fairly regular basis to himself and his wife Jackie, and went to Wolves and Molineux for his last ever match.
I used to bring him bags of Tayto and the obligatory bottle or two of Tanora in the early days and we ended up touring the world together over the course of his club and international career. And, coincidentally, one of the other hardest interviews I ever had to do was with hime at the World Cup finals in the United States in 1994.
Irwin was doing a bi-weekly World Cup column, ghost-written by me, for the Cork Examiner and here we were sitting in the lobby of the team hotel in Altamonte Springs and big Jack Charlton had dropped him for the upcoming Norway match. Irwin was livid and annoyed at Charlton’s decision and I was pissed off too for him. It was a big story at the time and we struggled through and I filed my copy for the following day’s edition.
But that was Irwin – ever the professional on good days and the bad and he goes down in history as one of our finest ever footballers with the medals to prove it.
Check out previous articles on Irish legends…
Neil O’Riordan profiles Niall Quinn
Paul Lennon profiles Robbie Keane
Sean Creedon profiles Johnny Giles
Emmet Malone profiles Paul McGrath
Sean Ryan profiles Liam Brady