Denis Irwin.

Irwin remembers United debut 30 years on

Today (Tuesday 18 August) marks the 30th anniversary of Manchester United legend Denis Irwin's first game for the club.

The Irishman, who made 529 appearances for the Reds during a 12-year stint, signed from Oldham Athletic in the summer of 1990, and made his debut against Liverpool in the Charity Shield at Wembley.

The game finished 1-1 – meaning the trophy was shared, as was then the custom – and, for Irwin, it was the start of a beautiful spell in Manchester, which would see him claim seven Premier League titles, three FA Cups, one League Cup and, of course, the 1999 Champions League.

“I’d played a few pre-season games, ironically enough back in Ireland, in my hometown of Cork,” remembered the former defender. “But it was my first big game for Manchester United. I think they got a bit of a dodgy penalty in the second half to make it 1-1, and we actually shared the trophy! That’s what they used to do way back in the 1980s and early 1990s – share the trophy.

“So it was my first competitive game, and my first trophy for Man United. I mean, I always knew how big Manchester United were, and how big the rivalry was, but it was my first big experience of it – albeit at Wembley – and a glimpse of what was to come. Barnesy, John Barnes, would have been on the left-hand side of midfield [against me]. It’s always kind of a strange affair, the Charity Shield/the Community Shield, but it was competitive, as you would expect against Liverpool.

“I was ambitious,” recalled Irwin, when he spoke to Inside United for a special interview to commemorate the anniversary of his first appearance. “I'd let my contract run out at Oldham. No disrespect to Oldham, but I wanted to move to a bigger club and a higher division.

“I'd had four great years at Oldham. We had some great cup runs. In 1989/90, we got to the [FA Cup] semi-final against Manchester United that went to a replay. We drew 3-3 at Maine Road and then got beat 2-1 in the replay, but obviously that put me in the spotlight even more. But I'd decided prior to that, that I wanted to move on.

“It wasn’t the days of the internet or anything like that. The only place you could read speculation or see speculation was in the Sunday newspapers, so everybody used to read them all the time. When a club like United comes calling, you don’t have to think about anything else. I was delighted that I signed in June before my contract ran out. But it was a huge step up for me.”

Thankfully for all United fans, Irwin negotiated that big step up superbly, becoming a fixture in the team – eventually at left-back, rather than his initial role as the right-full back. He won the 1991 European Cup Winners' Cup in his first season, and was part of the famous United side that claimed the club's first league title in 26 years, when they won the inaugural Premier League of 1992/93.

And despite his success with the epoch-defining 1999 Treble team, Irwin feels the strongest side he played in while at Old Trafford might have been the side which secured the first Double in the club's history.

“Everyone talks about 1999 and winning the Treble but I thoroughly enjoyed the first three or four years,” he revealed.

Denis lines up before the 1990 Charity Shield at Wembley, about to make his United debut.

“The first year we won the Premier League... then Roy came in as well. That was another huge signing for us. 1993/94 was such a powerful team. I loved playing with it. It could fight with anybody, play football with anybody.

“The 1992-94 period was definitely the most fun. The first four or five years of my career there were incredible, because it was at the beginning of the rising again of Manchester United. Obviously they’d won two FA Cups in the 1980s, but to be a part of what we achieved early on, and as you go forward, a Double in ’94, a Double in ’96, the Treble in ’99.

“The first three, four, five years I was there, with the players coming in, and the young lads coming in, to be a part of that was really special. To be with the fans in 1992/93, winning the Premier League really was incredible, and that night at home to Blackburn. Then the following year, winning the Double, great times. Really great times.”

To read Irwin's in-depth reflections on his 30-year association with the club – including his best individual game, his toughest opponent and his best goal – order the new issue (September) of Inside United now.

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