“Honestly, I would say Denis Irwin would be the one certainty to get in the team. I called him an eight out of 10”
“Honestly” indeed. Recently Sir Alex Ferguson uttered those words, in the week of Denis Irwin’s 48th birthday. Some birthday present, that praise, on the surface at least. To be told that Manchester United’s greatest ever manager, possibly the best football manager the world has ever seen, would not hesitate to include you in a starting lineup comprised of the best players of his reign, that no player but you could be assured of selection, must have been incredibly humbling.
What an absolute crock. Denis Irwin was dependable, he was skillful and undoubtedly one of the finest left-backs Manchester United and Ireland have ever had to call upon – it was doubly impressive that a naturally right-footed player could make a left-sided defensive position his own (not much call for cutting inside back there) – but if Manchester United 1986-2013 were somehow playing against Real Madrid 1955-1966 and “SAF” had been entrusted with team selection, Denis Irwin would probably be thawed from his cryopreservation as an afterthought in between Jose Mourinho being sent his executive box ticket/shoddy wine bumper pack and a reanimated Ryan Giggs being dragged out of a fembot orgy on the morning of the game.
No, rather than receiving a welcome gift from a mentor, Denis Irwin unwittingly gatecrashed a feud involving his former manager and another native of Cork, Roy Keane.
Sir Alex Ferguson may believe, in his book promoting tour delusion – in the midst of which the claim was made – that Denis Irwin would be the only certainty, but we all know that Sir Alex Ferguson was particularly – intimidatingly – competitive and, accordingly, there is only one name that would be scrawled, initially via pen onto desk and, eventually, as Mike Phelan slips it under the manager’s hand, onto the teamsheet as a matter of urgency: Number 16, Roy Keane.
There would be other certainties too. Cristiano Ronaldo may not make it in? Oh come on! Schmeichel would be the goalkeeper all day long as well. But, if winning is still Sir Alex Ferguson’s raison d’être, Keano would be the first name down.
Because, to win games, you don’t prioritise an eight out of 10 left-back. In fact, you could play Evra there, or Lee Sharpe, or Ryan Giggs, or even Clayton Blackmore (of “The Clayton Blackmore” fame). In fact, Lee Martin might be the best choice, as despite Mark Robins being hailed as the saviour of Ferguson’s career early on, through a winning goal in an FA Cup tie, it was Martin’s goal that secured that first trophy. Ferguson owes Martin a debt of gratitude, and he instead insults him by implying he would not even stake a claim to the left-back berth.
No, to win you look for a player who can control games, and change games. Rarely does a player possess both of these qualities which, at his peak – and we assume Ferguson would have the players in their optimum state for this hypothetical scenario – Roy Keane did. He could take to the field and ensure victory, he could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and he could spur a squad on to fulfill their potential over a season and an era.
But so much more importantly, Sir Alex Ferguson would pick Roy Keane first, and not hesitate for a second in including him in the starting eleven, because Roy Keane was Sir Alex Ferguson in footballer form. Ferguson did indeed play the game, and scored an impressive amount of goals, but he was born to be a manager and once he made that transition he searched for a player who would play like he managed. A player who would terrorise, who would enthuse and who would inspire. Read quotes from the players who achieved the most under Ferguson, about the manager, and then read them talk about Keane. The similarities will jump off the page or screen.
Picking Denis Irwin as left-back is likely, that I don’t dispute. But as the certainty? Sir Alex Ferguson would pick Roy Keane for that team as quickly as you could say “unseen MUTV interview”. Because not picking him wouldn’t simply be cutting off one’s own nose to spite one’s own face, it would be removing the nearest thing to having Sir Alex Ferguson’s mind and mentality on the pitch, as well as in the dugout.
Diarmuid O hAinle is the author of ‘It Started with a Handshake’ – An alternative look at Ireland’s 2002 World Cup campaign. Mick McCarthy, Roy Keane, Saipan and what might have been.
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