Irwin up for the Cup
Irish ace ready to be underdog with Wolves after glory with United
THE FA CUP not only helped to make Denis Irwin's career but also threatened to break it before it had begun in earnest.
Now it is set to reacquaint the British game's most decorated player with a status he had all but forgotten: that of the underdog.
A living refutation of his own assertion that "it's a young man's game", the 37-year-old Irwin will line up in Wolverhampton Wanderers' defence on Sunday as they strive to bridge the gap between First Division and Premiership in a third-round home match against Newcastle.
After 12 years with Manchester United, where he accumulated 15 major medals, he admits it will be "a strange feeling" to be in a team entering a tie as anything other than firm favourites.
When it comes to the FA Cup, which he won twice at Old Trafford before moving to Wolves last summer, Irwin can pinpoint the last occasion easily.
In 1990, the Irishman was with Oldham Athletic, from the old Second Division, when they were paired with United in a Maine Road semi-final. With characteristic understatement, he recalls that it proved "quite a significant draw" for him.
"That was the season that really kicked things off for me because Oldham also got to Wembley in the League Cup final, which we lost to Nottingham Forest," Irwin says. "On the Sunday we played United, Crystal Palace beat Liverpool 4-3 in the other semi-final at lunchtime. That made us feel anything could happen. And we were flying then, whereas United were struggling."
Had Alex Ferguson's side fallen to their unfashionable neighbours, the managerial legend could have been stillborn and the era of Beckham and Giggs, Cantona and Keane might never have happened. They drew 3-3, but Oldham, in Irwin's words, "ran out of legs" in the replay, losing 2-1.
Ferguson duly lifted the Cup and paid Joe Royle £650,000 for the opponent who had caught his eye. "It's all about timing and luck," Irwin reflects. "United were looking for a right-back. I was in the right place at the right time."
The latter talent allied to his tackling, crossing, set-piece expertise, reading of the game, consistency and unflappable nature would serve United superbly. Their gain was Leeds' loss, Irwin having gone to Elland Road from school in Cork and captained the youth side before being plunged into a senior debut at 18 in an FA Cup replay at Scunthorpe.
They say the past is another country. That tie, on a Third Division ground long demolished and with the 1960s survivors Eddie Gray and Peter Lorimer as team-mates, now seems like another planet to Irwin.
"I remember very little about it, except we got hammered 4-2 and I played centre-half," he says, surprisingly for one who stands 5ft 8in. "But you've got to start somewhere."
He endured another upset with Leeds at Peterborough in 1986 before Billy Bremner, in his wisdom, released him. His Cup luck did not immediately alter with Oldham, and during his first six years as a professional he was never on the winning side.
"I didn't know that!" he exclaims on being told. "Jesus. That's shocking. I'm glad it's changed a bit since then."
Irwin gained his first FA Cup winner's medal in 1994, earning the breakthrough penalty for United against Chelsea "when Eddie Newton smashed me". The second came two years later, Eric Cantona's late volley against Liverpool settling what his temperamentally polar opposite candidly calls "probably the worst final ever".
Despite missing out on a third through suspension in 1999, coincidentally against Newcastle, Irwin says with a smile and a shrug: "I've got the set of medals; seven championships, European Cup and so on. I can't complain."
After losing his place to Mikael Silvestre, he was allowed to leave United last summer, when Ferguson pronounced him "my greatest bargain". Wolves, who had just seen West Bromwich Albion roar smugly past them into the Premiership, won the tussle to sign Irwin, which he reveals as the fulfilment of an ambition.
"When I was growing up in Ireland, my first loves were hurling and Gaelic football, and all my mates followed Liverpool. There was me and another boy in my team who supported Wolves, though for the life of me I can't remember why."
Amazingly, he had never even set foot inside Molineux until Dave Jones offered him a one-year deal. His first appearance there was a friendly against Newcastle, of all clubs, which Wolves lost 2-0.
"That will have no bearing on this one," he argues. "It's six months down the line and things have changed." Much as Ferguson's team were slow to warm to their task in Irwin's first title-winning campaign, having lost out to Leeds in the spring of 1992, so Wolves suffered a hangover after blowing a seemingly certain promotion.
"United lost the first two matches that season and drew the third. There was probably something similar here, though they wouldn't admit to it, but it's all forgotten now."
With another Old Trafford old boy, Paul Ince, hitting his combative stride after missing pre-season and the opening fixtures, Wolves embarked on a 10-match unbeaten run which swept them into the play-off zone.
Then came an inexplicably poor December, when Irwin sustained an ankle injury which forced him to miss his first match this season, Saturday's numbing home defeat by Bradford City.
Cup runs can be a distraction but Irwin, who is expected to be fit to face Newcastle, believes victory would revive confidence for those less glamorous but more important fixtures to come.
"I knew what to expect at this level, even after so long away. I didn't have to get my head round smaller crowds and stadiums. It's different you get less time on the ball but several sides have a Premiership pedigree, like Leicester, Derby, Coventry and Ipswich, so it's a hard division to escape.
"Success in knock-out competitions can stimulate your League form, and I know from Oldham that there's nothing better than a big club at home in the FA Cup. Newcastle are a very good team. I'm playing left-back so I may be up against (Nolberto) Solano.
"Whoever it is, they're a young, mobile side with dangerous players like (Craig) Bellamy and (Kieron) Dyer. Then there's the old fella up front."
Alan Shearer and Irwin would have been colleagues if Alex Ferguson had got his way, but on Sunday they will be locking horns again, vying to exert their experience. "I'm the oldest of the old," Irwin says self-mockingly as two 20-year-old wolf cubs, his fellow defenders Mark Clyde and Joleon Lescott, stroll past.
They may be less green than Irwin was on that distant, disastrous night at Scunthorpe (who, by coincidence, host Leeds again on Saturday). Does their relative rawness force him to take extra responsibility?
"I'm still not the most talkative on the pitch. I'll talk to the winger and centre-back on my side, but I won't bark across at the right midfielder. Incey does all that from the centre.
"I just get on with my game like I've always done. The old legs are going strong and I'm still enjoying it." Youthfulness is not, it seems, the exclusive preserve of the young. Independent News Service.