I was lucky enough (both personally and professionally) to have a chance to sit down with former Manchester United player and Ireland international Denis Irwin this week. The former leftback now works for the club and can be found on MUTV and RTE in Ireland. He were here in Kansas City to promote Manchester United's North American Tour this summer. Man United will play in Philadelphia, Toronto, Kansas City, Houston and Mexico in July.
We talked, of course, about the Red Devils, their upcoming trip and the match up with the Wizards. But we also talked about his World Cup memories, who he's (not) rooting for this year and a little bit about how far American soccer has come.
Typically, a Five for Friday is quite literally five questions on a Friday. But because Irwin was such a great interview and our talk bounced all over the soccer world, we've added an additional seven questions. But Twelve for Friday didn't quite have the same ring to it.
The questions come from myself and colleague Pete Grathoff. Just picture the scene from "Office Space" with the two Bobs. "I think I speak for both of us when I say the pleasure was all on this side of the table."
(For the record, he never once called it just "Kansas." There was a slight pause though. "It's great to be in Kansas ... City.")
The Manchester United daysFull 90: What's your favorite moment in a Manchester United jersey? Irwin:
I was fortunate enough to have loads. [My favorite is the] 1999 European Cup when we beat Bayern Munich in the Nou Camp in the last minute, scoring two goals in injury time. Teddy [Sheringham] and Ole [Gunnar Solskjaer] scored. That's probably the one that really stands out. But there were loads on the way. My first trophy was European Cup Winners cup beating Barcelona. First Premier League in '93 season. That was huge. The first double in '94. Beating Liverpool to win the double in '96. For an English team to win the treble [like they did in 1999 winning the Premiership, the FA Cup and the European Cup (now the Champions League)] is very, very hard because it's a very hard season in the premier league. To keep going on all three fronts in nigh on impossible. You need an awful lot of luck. And we had that in '99. You need that.Full 90: What was the mood of the team as you approached injury time in the European Cup final? Irwin:
The funny thing was in that season we scored so many goals in the 90th minute and 92nd minute. We were always a team -- and still are a team -- that will always go right to the end. Comes from the manager [Alex Ferguson] I suppose.
WORLD CUPFull 90: You're going to be working the World Cup as a broadcaster, right? Irwin:
I'm working for RTE in Ireland. So I'm looking forward to it. This should be good. The world cup is always good. You've got the best players playing and it's the biggest tournament internationally, of course.Full 90: You played for Ireland in the '94 World Cup, what was your favorite moment being on a World Cup team? Irwin:
Beating Italy in Giants stadium one to nil. Everybody expected Italy to beat us. Everybody expected that there would be more Italians in the crowd than Irish. It was unbelievable. It was a little too hot for us, but we managed to get through to the last 16. It can happen. ... You can easily upset another team in the World Cup.Full 90: How did you deal with the conditions playing in America in '94? Irwin:
It was hot. We struggled because of the way that we played. We weren't the kind of team that hung on to possession an awful lot, and you need to do that in the heat. We were a very direct team and did a lot of running. It didn't suit. Irish are fair-skinned and anything over 60 is a heat wave. You can imagine when we played down in Orlando against Mexico it was 117 degrees on the field. It was a bit different. We had trouble getting water onto the pitch. Yeah it was hot, but we enjoyed ourselves.Full 90: Being an Irishman, I've got to ask: What are your thoughts on Thierry Henry? Irwin:
The Irish certainly won't be backing the French this year. I was away walking in part of the Sahara for charity, so I didn't get to see it until about 5 or 6 days later. It wasn't nice. The other thing is we travel in numbers as well. I think that the World Cup is a lesser place with the fact that us Irish aren't over there 'cause we'd have certainly tried to drink the place dry in the first place. We'd have brought a lot of entertainment over. It's not to be. Unfortunately, you have to move on. No point in crying your eyes out over it. But we certainly won't be cheering on the French over there.
AMERICAN SOCCER AND THE MANCHESTER UNITED TOURFull 90: Are you surprised at how popular the sport has gotten in this country since 1994? Irwin:
There’s no doubt that it’s improving as the years go by. ... There have always been English clubs coming across (the Atlantic Ocean to play) — United came six years ago and played A.C. Milan and Barcelona — but now you’re seeing English teams coming across and playing MLS sides. I think that’s a big, big step. It’s a good acknowledgement that the standards have improved, because preseason is one of the most important times for a football club. You want good, hard training, and you need to play against good opposition. They wouldn’t come across and play the likes of Kansas City Wizards or the Philadelphia Union if they weren’t going to get that. It's as simple as that.Full 90: Did you come over when Manchester United played Barcelona over here (six years ago)? Irwin:
No, I had just left. I did the tours of Norway, Ireland and the far East. When I spoke to Scholes and Giggsy recently, they said that this was the place to come.Full 90: Why's that? Irwin:
Because they can get a little more relax time. Get out and walk around. You go to the Far East and you're just stuck in the hotel [because you'll be mobbed by fans when you go anywhere]. I know I spoke to them [Scholes and Giggs] recently and they are delighted they are coming out here. They have to do preseason and the preseason is hard work. But they'd rather do it and enjoy it. Not that they don't enjoy the Far East, but I think they prefer this place. ... It's nice to come out to Kansas City and walk out and see the places.Full 90: What kind of team do you expect to bring on the tour this summer? Irwin:
Strong. Giggsy, Nevs, Scholes will be here. [Goalkeeper Edwin] van der Sar will be here. [John] O'Shea, [Jonny] Evans, [Darren] Fletcher, [Daron] Gibson, [Dimitar] Berbatov, [Michael] Owen, [Owen] Hargreaves, [Federico] Macheda. [New signing, Mexican striker Javier] Hernandez will be out here. [Danny] Welbeck. The list will go on. The da Silva twins [Rafael and Fabio]. The lads who are playing the World Cup won't make it, unfortunately. Especially [Wayne] Rooney. He will be missed. He'd have loved it out here. But the quality of the squad they will bring over will be top class. And the team they put on the field against Kansas City will be top class team.
ON DAVID BECKHAMFull 90: What was it like being around David Beckham? Irwin:
He was a great player, Becks. He came in with a group of lads and something like that will never happen again. Scholesy [Paul Scholes], the two Nevs (Phil and Gary Neville), Giggsy [Ryan Giggs] and Nicky Butt. Five or six of them coming up at the same time. That will never happen again. Becks is a great footballer, great deliverer of a ball, great passer. Also brought great energy and great desire. He really was a fantastic player for United.Full 90: Do you think his coming to the States was roundly mocked? Irwin:
I think people were weary. At first. ... It's really lifted the name of the MLS. Freddie Ljungberg has come over. Now Thierry Henry is head over. It's great.