SINGAPORE — He has won more English Premier League (EPL) titles than the likes of David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand and current Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Yet Denis Irwin has often been overshadowed by his peers, being the quieter, more unassuming guy as colourful characters such as Roy Keane and Eric Cantona dominated the United dressing room during their successful years in the 1990s.
The 53-year-old Irishman was in seven of those EPL-winning squads from 1992 to 2002, only behind Ryan Giggs (13), Paul Scholes (11) and Gary Neville (eight).
Different characters, same winning attitude
He told Yahoo News Singapore during a Chivas Regal sponsor’s event in collaboration with Man United on the sidelines of the International Champions Cup on Saturday (20 July), “It’s about getting the right blend of characters.
“You need the loud ones, you need the ones who would be dancing in the dressing room, but you also need the quiet ones who just get on with it and prepare the games right way.
“You’ll also need a nice blend of young players and experienced veterans, as well as a good mix of attacking and defensive players. But all of them must have similar attitudes towards winning and maintaining the club’s culture of excellence.
“You need such a complete mixture, and then you’ll get a very good squad, close to a perfect team.”
Indeed, the Man United teams which swept to 13 EPL titles during Alex Ferguson’s extraordinary managerial reign were terrific blends of creative playmakers, tough-as-nails enforcers, young upstarts and tested veterans.
Dependable left-back for a decade
Irwin was the dependable left-back for a full decade, an unfussy defender with a knack of scoring penalties and free kicks. But did he ever get the “hairdryer treatment” from Ferguson – the Scot shouting right in the player’s face – for not playing up to the manager’s high expectations?
“No, he always knew if you’re giving your best. Obviously he’ll have a word or two if you’re going through a sticky patch of form, but he would always support you,” Irwin said.
“But he expects you to push your yourself to be the best. If you don’t, you’re left behind and of no use to him. So I had to keep demanding the best of myself on the pitch, and look after myself off the pitch. As long as you did that, he was good to you.”
Winning gets harder with each title triumph
Even with the right blend of players, it does not mean that winning titles gets easier after the first triumph. In fact, Irwin believes it got more difficult.
“Once you’re the champion, everyone wanted to topple you from the top, every team tried a little harder to beat you,” he said.
“On the other hand, we had a little more experience and know-how to become champions again, so that counted for something. But it certainly got harder to go the distance again.”
This interview was made possible by Chivas Regal Singapore, in collaboration with Manchester United.