London: The old rivals are at each other again. This Sunday, Manchester United travel to Anfield to take on Liverpool in a proper top-of-the-table clash. The following weekend, they face each other again, in the Fourth Round of the Emirates FA Cup.
Memories of countless titanic battles over the years are back in sharp focus – and one legendary Manchester United left-back is taken back to 30 seasons ago, when United were, like now, trying to respond to a Liverpool title win.
“They were top dogs at the time, everyone knew they were the team to catch,” admits Denis Irwin, who was Alex Ferguson’s major summer signing in the summer of 1990. “But it did feel like I was joining a club who were on the rise again – United had just won the FA Cup – and Alex Ferguson was just wanting us to compete with them.”
There was definitely something stirring in that 1990-91 season, which you could argue laid the bedrock for two decades of United domination. Irwin got injured against Everton and, with United chasing the game, a young 17 year-old winger called Ryan Giggs replaced him for his debut. Another exciting teenager, Lee Sharpe, announced his arrival with a hat-trick in the League Cup, and this blossoming of youth combined with the experience of Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, Brian McClair and Mark Hughes saw United beat Barcelona in the European Cup Winners Cup Final.
“It was a progression, it took time, but two years later we won the league – and we never looked back from that, ” remembers Irwin, the lesson being that the road to glory might be bumpy, but if enough talent and desire is there, it will eventually pay dividends.
“Alex Ferguson was investing in the academy and the local young lads, just as it’s great to see the likes of Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood come through now,” he says. “Actually, it was quite an experienced side when I went there – I was 24 myself – and it was blending in the likes of Giggs and Sharpe which he did so well.”
It is tempting, then, to cast this United side in similar light – not least because if Irwin’s team had a complete game changer in Eric Cantona, then Solskjær may have also stumbled upon one in Bruno Fernandes.
“Only time will tell on that,” Irwin cautions. “Before Eric joined we’d won a couple of cup competitions, so we were nearly there, but he was massive for us. We had plenty of players who could run – Kanchelskis, Giggs, Sharpe – but we needed a focal point, and he was that. Bruno is similar – he’s made a huge impact on the whole club; you go back a year and the best case scenario was finishing in the top four. Which they did, and he was a huge part of that.
“But to go a year on and find United three points ahead of Liverpool at the top shows the difference he’s made. You’ll have to wait to see if Bruno ends up with a similar amount of trophies to Eric, but you can see the similarities between the two.”
“What Marcus (Rashford) has done has been unbelievable. He’s remembered where he’s come from, and he’s an old head on young shoulders. He’s highlighted the real poverty that’s around – which is only going to get worse – and though playing for United gives him a platform, he’s used that very well.”
– Denis Irwin, Manchester United legend
Irwin has been particularly impressed with the way United have bounced back from an indifferent start to the season, which saw them knocked out of the Champions League and, after a dismal goalless draw with Manchester City, lying eighth in the Premier League in early December. Five wins and a draw since have taken them to the summit.
“They’ve been a lot more solid, they’ve always got a goal threat and their away form is incredible, which is a good sign going into Sunday’s game,” he says. “They’ve dug in – look at the Wolves, Villa and Burnley games recently and they’ve had to battle it out and get over the line. In this really strange season, it’s been enough to get them to the top.
“What I would say though is that even though this game between Liverpool and Manchester United is important, the title won’t be decided between those two on Sunday. Manchester City will also be involved, which will make for a great season.”
Actually, that historic 1993 title win also came after a poor start to the season. It all changed when Cantona was signed from Leeds in November – and Irwin confirms the story that the deal only came about after Leeds had called about the availability of a certain D. Irwin. Ferguson rebuffed their advances but asked after Cantona on the same call. “I knew nothing about it at the time, and I’m glad,” he laughs, “but yes, it’s in enough books for me to believe it to be true.
“But seriously, Cantona arriving was how we got momentum, and that’s so important in a title challenge. United have it right now, they’ve shown a lot of courage and bravery to get themselves on top – but we’re not half way through the season yet.”
It’s probably right to temper expectations just slightly; Marcus Rashford might be scoring at a rate of a goal every other game currently but his expected goals stats suggest this is unsustainable. If Bruno Fernandes was to get injured… well, his goals and assists tally (only beaten by Harry Kane, Yeung-min Son and Diogo Jota) is effectively irreplaceable.
Talking of Rashford though, it is slightly incredible that the Manchester United striker is still performing as he is, given he’s also an English national hero thanks to his efforts to get children substantial free school meals during the pandemic. As a United ambassador, Irwin has seen at first hand the impact Rashford has had, through Manchester United Foundation’s work with FareShare GM – a scheme where 33 tonnes of food was delivered to Old Trafford, made into 80,000 meals by club chefs, and delivered to children and families over Christmas.
“What Marcus has done has been unbelievable,” says Irwin. “He’s remembered where he’s come from, and he’s an old head on young shoulders. He’s highlighted the real poverty that’s around – which is only going to get worse – and though playing for United gives him a platform, he’s used that very well.”
FareShare is the UK’s biggest food charity and a founding member of the Child Food Poverty Taskforce, set up to help end child hunger in the UK – and spearheaded by Rashford. Last month alone, the United effort to help families raised over £400,000, and Irwin is keen to emphasise that Manchester United Foundation’s work is both local and global – United’s partnership with Unicef under the ‘United for Unicef’ brand is managed by the Foundation.
“It’s tough times at the moment, and these charities do incredible jobs,” he says. “Football is a community, away from what happens on the pitch on a Saturday afternoon, and we can use that community to look after each other.”
– The writer is a freelance journalist based in the UK.