Irwin: Rest and recuperation are key for players

Friday 19 March 2021 08:00

Manchester United’s former head of rest and recovery, Robin Thorpe caught up with club legend, Denis Irwin to discuss his successful career, tips on sleep & recovery, and to give his own take on the new generation of footballers and the challenges they face in today’s society.

Denis began his career at the club in 1990 where he quickly became a legendary figure, making 529 appearances in total and winning every major honour available during his 12 years at the club. The Irishman called time on his playing days in 2004 at Wolverhampton Wanderers, at the age of 38, a rarity in the game today. 

“I loved everything to do with football. It’s a dream when you’re growing up. If you want to stay at the highest level you’ve got to look after yourself,” he said. “I always ate well anyway, but you can always improve on that. I also hydrated well. “Not many people can say they played till that age. I got out what I put in.”

The defender signed for United in 1990 from Oldham Athletic. Sir Alex Ferguson, saw Denis’s potential, and the man from Cork spoke to Robin about the positive influence Sir Alex had on the English game in the ‘90s, and his commitment to push United to become the best.

“Sir Alex always wanted you to rest,” Irwin reflected. “He said when you’re playing for a top club you’re playing an awful lot of matches and it’s very important that you rest up. The game was moving into a lot more of a professional mode from the late ‘90s onwards.
Denis played 529 times for United, putting him ninth on our all-time appearances list.
“It started changing through the ‘90s; a Dietician came in [who] encouraged us to eat and drink properly. Sir Alex Ferguson used to try to bring in the best physios [and] the best coaches. Steve McClaren joined in 1999 and he was a very forward, positive coach [with great] ideas. When Michael [Clegg] came in, he was very well received because it was something we needed at the time. It was the first step Man United took.

“I finished my career at United in 2002 and by then we had a proper weights coach [Michael Clegg], gym coach, but not an awful lot in terms of sports science - the manager looked after all that. It shows you how much the games moved on in 18 years.”

Denis also discussed another positive influence who came into the game in the ‘90s, former Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger. 

“Certainly the turn of the mid-90s with Arsene Wenger coming on board [saw] a lot more professional habits. He started looking at what you were eating, [and] your rest and recuperation.

“The arrival of Arsene Wenger [in the mid-90s] certainly brought some huge positives to the game of football and England in terms of diets and working out,” Irwin added.
The former left-back is no stranger to understanding the importance of good sleep and nutrition and that it’s a key component to great rest and recovery. He shared his own advice and explained how reliable sleeping patterns helped benefit his career.
“Rest is a huge part of how a footballer gets on,” the man from Cork opined. “There are so many matches in the Premier League and you really have to look after yourself.

“[It’s] vitally important that you get into routine, not just for sports people, but the general public. You almost spend a third of your life on a mattress. I think people should realise how important it is for you and your posture, the way you carry yourself, etc. It counts for an awful lot, so you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got the right sleep environment; nice and peaceful and I think I certainly have got that.”

Robin and Denis went on to touch upon an important topic surrounding the effects of social media and distractions in the modern-day world, along with how the game has changed very quickly in the last 20 years. 

“There are a lot more outside influences to distract them [players] and keep them awake at night than what we did. They’re probably losing that quality of sleep and those early hours that are so important,” said Denis.

“We had huge advantages, Robin. We didn’t have any video games, social media or Netflix back in the day to keep you awake at night. So I suppose we were lucky we had that quality of sleep. We had the opportunity to have that quality of sleep because there wasn’t an awful lot there to distract us.
“We didn’t get anywhere near the same hassle that the modern-day player gets. They’re really under the spotlight now. We were fortunate in that respect.

“Just like back then, you’ve got to be dedicated. [If] you want to be the best you can possibly be, and at Manchester United that was the top for me. I wanted to stay there as long as possible and that meant taking everything on board.”

Denis touched on how important it is for big clubs to collaborate with health and sleep brands, just like Manchester United’s partnership with Mlily.

“I’m fortunate to have an Mlily mattress and it’s pure heaven,” he said. “I didn’t have that in my day playing football but it was different I suppose. The technology these days, not just in football but in mattresses, has moved on so much.”

“In general, people are a lot more aware that sleep is important, certainly when you’re at a professional football club. It is vitally important, and if you want to reach the top you’ve got to rest and recuperate.

“So I can see more and more athletes and clubs engaging with companies like Mlily, finding out a lot more about things like that and what they can do to improve a player’s wellbeing away from the game.”

Click here to listen to Denis’s full podcast with our official partners Mlily.