Wolves fans visiting Molineux are getting used to seeing World class players performing at the highest level. It’s become par for the course, but it wasn’t always the way. In the 80s, 90s and 00s – it was very much the era of the journeymen. Players past their peak would head to Molineux in search of a final payday and the challenge of helping Wolves top get into the promised land. The Molineux journeymen were a mixed bag, and the type of players that the fans had got used to seeing arrive, with varied results.
One player who broke the mould when it came to ageing stars taking a drop down to help the cause, was Denis Irwin. At 36-years-old, nobody was more surprised to see Irwin sign for Wolves than the fans. Fans of Manchester United, and the gold and black faithful. He was the latest in a long line of elder statesman to join the promotion cause, but this felt different. After over 500 games and 12 years at Old Trafford, Irwin was one of the most decorated footballers in the game with a host of domestic and European trophies. He was the player that Sir Alex Ferguson called his best ‘pound-for-pound’ signing, and a player who won a staggering 15 major titles for the Red Devils. With a wizard-of a left foot, he became an integral part of the United machine during those glory years.
“Now there was a player, Denis Irwin.We always called him eight out of ten Denis. So quick and nimble: quick-brained. Never let you down. There was never any bad publicity with him.” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography.
It threatened to be Robbie Keane-esque when Irwin came out with the line about always having been a Wolves fan and that it was a boyhood dream It actually turns out it was true.
Denis Irwin said: “Two of us followed Wolves back in John Richards’ days during the 1970s when everybody else was following Manchester United and Liverpool. I could only support them through the newspapers and two television channels we had back home then – I had never even been to Molineux before I signed last week. But I know exactly how big a club Wolves are and I would only have joined one with massive ambition.”
Dave Jones said “I am pleased to have picked up such an accomplished player, whose pedigree is second to none.The experience he will bring to the squad is unprecedented. It was a scoop to pick him up with so many other clubs chasing him. He is going to be of great benefit to the club. He is without doubt a top professional.”
The Wolves CEO, Jez Moxey, agreed: “We hope the fact that Denis has been involved with winning so many honours over the years will be of benefit to our efforts this season. Dave was keen to bring Denis to Molineux not only for his experience and undoubted quality but also because he can play at left or right-back and comes to Wolves from a club with a winning culture. Everyone knows we have been looking for someone to fill the gap left by Kevin Muscat and in Denis we have found an excellent replacement.”
Rather than being a tired defender with fading legs and ambition, Irwin was a huge success story. A virtual ever-present for Jones and his side and part of the team that finally got Wolves back in the big time with that play-off final win in Cardiff. Wolves fans were treated to a seasoned professional, but one still at the top of his game. His calm and assured presence on the ball was matched with quality distribution up the left-side of the Wolves team to Mark Kennedy, another key player in the success story. That link-up was a vital one for Wolves and their attacking threat and it was a combination that worked far better than even Dave Jones will claimed to have seen coming. The brutal battlegrounds of the Championship didn’t faze Irwin, his head was always one-step ahead, and the quiality never wavered. Irwin still had the legs, still had the desire, and his place in Molineux history should be far more than a footnote. He played some 52 games for Wolves that season, a real kick in the teeth for the critics who questioned if he would be more than just a bit part player due to his age.
As a fan watching that season, Irwin was such a calming presence. You knew he would always make the right choice on the ball, andhe always did. He was an effortless performer and we all felt really lucky to be watching him play in gold and black. This man was the epitome of composure, humble, hard-working, and clearly better than the division he was in. Jones also delivered the shrewd signing of Irwin’s former Old Trafford pal, Paul Ince. The self-titled Guvnor was equally as fired up for the new challenge and took Wolves to his heart during a 131 game four year spell – he even applied to become manager after Glenn Hoddle’s departure.
Former Wolves hardman Alex Rae remembers both players and the impact they had.
Alex Rae said “Denis Irwin and Paul Ince were phenomenal. The year they came in we had lost out in the play-offs, then they came in and brought a determination and understanding of how to win and we managed to get over the line for the first time in twenty years. The two of them were very different characters. Denis was very quiet, but when he spoke it was very poignant to get his point across. Paul Ince was just a born leader and he was driving the team forward on and off the pitch. Irwin was also voted in the Championship team of the season. Not bad for an old un’.”
When Wolves won promotion to the Premier League, it meant a return to Old Trafford, and it proved to be an emotional one. The stadium rose as one to welcome Irwin back, even if the result didn’t go the way of the former favourite. The Premier League dream turned sour for Wolves, mainly due to a lack of serious investment in staying up. Another story, for another day. At 38-years-old, and having achieved what he set out to achieve in the Black Country, Irwin hung up his boots for the final time. The trophy cabinet was full and with 33 games that season in the top-flight, he bowed out playing at the highest level. Looking back at the end of his career, he was as unassuming as everyone had become accustomed to.
Denis Irwin said “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. 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.”
The truth is quite the opposite, the likes of Irwin have rarely if ever been seen since. A true legend of the game and one of the best left-backs at least English football has seen. It all came to an end in a Wolves shirt. For his boyhood team, don’t forget that bit! With such a good understanding of the game and a good football brain, many had expected Irwin would return as a coach/manager. Instead, he went down the punditry route, working as a presenter on MUTV, RTE and a columnist for Ireland’s Sunday World newspaper.
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