Dennis Viollet, a United man: An Interview with Rachel Viollet
“Never begin to think you know everything. There is always something to be learned.” – Dennis Viollet
Dennis Viollet passed away on 6 March 1999, just a couple of months before Manchester United completed the treble. When Teddy Sheringham and the Ole Gunnar Solskjær scored the crucial goals against Bayern Munich to bring the European Cup back to Old Trafford for the first time since 1968 it’s hard not to think that the dramatic ‘never-say-die’ performance that night in Barcelona was a fitting tribute to Viollet.
Viollet was one of the original Busby Babes – he featured in United’s first foray into the European Cup in the 1956-57 season. He was the tournament’s top goalscorer, finding the target nine times, as United made it through to the semi-final before being knocked out by Alfredo di Stéfano’s Real Madrid.
“He also scored Manchester United’s first ever European Cup goal,” his daughter, Rachel Viollet, told Rant. “I remember him saying the way European teams played suited his style, which is why he scored so many goals in Europe.”
That goal came against Anderlecht as United won 2-0 in Belgium. For good measure he knocked another four past the Belgians at Maine Road in the return leg as United trounced Anderlecht 10-0. It remains United’s record win.
Despite the many accolades Viollet achieved at United, from winning two league titles, to hitting the club’s first goal in European competition and scoring 32 league goals in the 1959-60 season – a figure yet to be surpassed any other Red Devil 0 his story is unheralded compared with the club’s more storied luminaries. Indeed, Viollet’s significance at United eludes his daughter at first.
“Having grown up in America, I knew my dad as a father first, then as ‘Coach Viollet’ as he was affectionately called by his players. It wasn’t until I went to Old Trafford with my dad for the first time at age 12 that I started to realize his legacy in England. We were mobbed by fans, so that opened my eyes a bit!” she admitted.
Given the contribution Dennis made at United, Stoke City and then to the development of the game in the United States it made sense to finally document his life, in Dennis Viollet – A United Man.
“I got the idea about 11 years ago when I heard Rebecca Miller was making a documentary about her father, the great American playwright Arthur Miller,” Rachel revealed. “I thought to myself that I should do the same!”
Sporting prowess runs in the family – Rachel was a professional tennis player, rising to become Britain’s number one female player, as well as sharing her father’s eye for goal on the pitch. She credits her experience in sport in aiding her career as a filmmaker.
“I loved playing sports as a kid, and was lucky enough to play professional tennis. There is no salary in tennis, it is a performance based sport, which certainly creates challenges. You have to keep yourself very healthy and mentally strong. I loved that challenge. It also taught me the importance of perseverance and hard work, something that translates into my filmmaking career,” she explained, while noting “I did play soccer until the age of 15, and was the leading goal scorer on my high school team, playing as striker of course!”
Dennis Viollet – A United Man is not Rachel’s first foray into the world of documentary making – Viollet’s daughter worked on the story of her hero Althea Gibson, the first black Wimbledon champion.
“I never felt that she got the recognition she deserved for being the first black tennis player to win Wimbledon. Most people think Arthur Ashe was the first, but Althea did it 20 years before him during segregation, so her story is quite remarkable.”
And Rachel certainly isn’t looking back.
“Documentaries have always been a source of fascination to me. It starts first with finding a great story to tell. Often during production, the story will present itself more clearly as you do the interviews and research, so I love the unknown factor of making documentaries. Then of course, presenting it to the audience and seeing their reaction is the ultimate reward.”
The wheels have been set in motion for a motion picture called The Busby Babes. Meanwhile, turning the idea of documenting her father’s legacy into a fully-fledged film was not an easy task, but the strength of Dennis’ accomplishments were too good not to tell.
“Greg Wonder, my co-producer on the project, loved my dad’s story right away. What drew him in was the fact that my dad’s career seemed to be under-the-radar compared to the likes of George Best and Sir Bobby Charlton. Greg felt my dad’s contribution to Manchester United needed to be documented.
“His contribution to American soccer has never been discussed, because my dad was so modest, so that was another motivating factor to make the film. Once Greg committed to the project, I started to raise money through crowd funding. Fans from all over the world contributed. The entire process from start to finish took just over three years.”
It was a process that led her to interview Denis Law, Nobby Stiles, Bryan Robson, Mike Summerbee, Johnny Giles, Paddy Crerand, Jeff Whitefoot and Sir Alex Ferguson.
“They all spoke highly of his skills on the pitch and his modesty and kindness. I got the sense he was a ‘player’s player.’ I loved interviewing Johnny Giles. He was fascinating. I also enjoyed Sir Alex because of his great sense of humour.”
Of course being Dennis’ daughter allows Rachel unique insight into the man himself; the regard in which he held assistant manager, Jimmy Murphy; Sir Matt Busby’s influence and of the bond between young United players.
“As I got older I started to ask my dad more questions about his time at United. He really loved Jimmy Murphy because of his passion for coaching. My dad credits Jimmy for developing him into a top player. Sir Matt had an air of authority. Dad respected the way he got the best out of his players. The Busby Babes were a very close knit group. More like brothers,” she explained.
If any song summed up the brotherhood of the Babes it was the Manchester United Calypso. Viollet, a reggae fan, was partial – Edric Connor’s song captured the verve, innocence and joy of the Babes.
It is impossible to discuss the Babes without mentioning 6 February 1958, the Munich disaster. Viollet was sat next to another survivor, Sir Bobby Charlton, and unsurprisingly, the crash was a pivotal experience in the United striker’s life.
“Dad never voluntarily discussed Munich, but if I asked questions he would always answer them,” she revealed. “It was very difficult for him right after the crash. He couldn’t sleep at night and suffered from survivor’s guilt. The tragedy stayed with him his entire life.”
Not only did he lose many of his ‘brothers,’ but the world lost one of its greatest teams. The Munich crash moved Real Madrid president Santiago Bernabéu so much that he even offered Alfredo di Stéfano on loan. Football was deprived of what would surely have been an epic rivalry between the Busby Babes and Los Merengues.
“I think everyone wonders “what if?” We’ll never know, but their talent was undeniable,” Rachel said. “Sir Matt once said he felt he had brought the team to the point where he could sit back and just watch them play for the next 10 years, they were that good.”
Dennis’ best years in a red shirt came post-Munich. The season after the crash United finished second behind Wolverhampton Wanderers. Being one of the senior players, Dennis assumed captaincy of the club and contributed 21 goals. As an all-rounder he believed the 1958-59 season was probably his best in professional football. The following campaign he blasted in 32 league goals, a club record that stands today.
After the disaster Viollet changed his outlook and decided to enjoy every minute he had. That newfound perspective proved to be detrimental to his career. “He did live life to the fullest, perhaps too much which might have led to his transfer to Stoke,” Rachel revealed.
At the age of 28 the striker was sold to Stoke City for £25,000. It was a transfer as ruthless as they come, with the details ironed out by the clubs without a word to the player until it was too late – a decision that surprised and disappointed Viollet, who was just seven games shy of marking his 300th appearance for United.
“There was some tension between him and Matt Busby, but I don’t think he thought Matt would sell him to Stoke without even being consulted. That disappointed him, but he didn’t dwell on it. My dad always looked forward, never backwards.”
And Viollet enjoyed his time at the Victoria Ground, captaining Stoke to the second division title in the 1962-63 season, taking the Potters to English football’s top tier. He struck up a friendship with one of the game’s bona fide legends.
“He had five great years at Stoke, and loved playing with Sir Stanley (Matthews). They became great friends. Dad admired the way Stan took care of himself. He always ate healthy foods, and was fitter than players 10 years his junior. What made my dad laugh was how nervous Stan got before matches, he would have to drink a little cognac to calm his nerves!”
Once his career at Stoke ended Dennis played for the Baltimore Bays in the US before returning to England at Witton Albion and then finishing at Irish side, Linfield, winning the Irish cup in 1970. If he had any regrets it was that he didn’t represent England more than twice before hanging up his boots.
His experience in America made a big impression and in 1974 he became manager of the Washington Diplomats and then Noel Cantwell’s assistant at the New England Tea Men. It was a turbulent time for football in the US, with the initial excitement of the North American Soccer League fizzling out.
In the NASL’s embers Viollet noticed a grassroots interest that was asking to be tapped. In a country that was seemingly football-averse the striker opened up a coaching school to impart his knowledge, much as Sir Matt and Murphy had when he was on his way to becoming one of the Babes.
“He could see the potential for soccer in America, so in that sense he was a visionary. The work he did at the grassroots level was very important to the growth of U.S. soccer. The media certainly didn’t help! We explore this in the documentary. My dad saw the enthusiasm with the youth players and that convinced him soccer could take off.”
Whether in New England, Washington or Jacksonville, Viollet planted the seeds for a new generation of US football enthusiasts. His experience as a Babe informed his decisions as to how the game should be played as well as opting to give local talent a chance to shine.
“Jimmy Murphy had a great influence on my dad’s coaching style,” said Rachel. “Passion for the game, playing with pride, and keeping things simple was my dad’s philosophy and that stems back to the way Jimmy coached.”
Long before it became fashionable Viollet saw potential for football to expand in America. When the formation of Major League Soccer came to be it was built on stronger foundations, with firmer roots than the NASL.
“He felt America was finally ready for MLS, and he was right. He also loved the ‘soccer specific”‘ stadiums that were being built for the league which has been vital to its success,” she said. “Yes, he would like to have managed an MLS team, but sadly he became ill shortly after the league’s formation.”
In 1997, Dennis was invited by UEFA to be a guest along with the other surviving members of the Babes to watch the Champions League Final in Munich. Shortly after his return he was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away two years later.
“PRIDE, LOVE, INSPIRATION. He was a great father and friend to me. He loved the simple things in life, like spending time with family, friends or walking the dog. I loved that about him,” said Rachel.
The documentary chronicling Viollet’s life has been shown at film festivals including one in Manchester where it won the Audience Award. She hopes that all who watch it “understand who my dad was, and the significance of his contributions to English and American soccer.”
The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The reception has been amazing thus far. I’ve been getting messages from all over the world telling me how much they love the movie,” Rachel told Rant.
“The most common message I received from people who saw the film, is that they feel they got to know my father as a person. It was very important to me the film portray who he was as a person, and not just a footballer. So the fact that this message came through makes me very happy.”
Indeed, Viollet may be gone, but he’s far from forgotten. His ashes rest in the goalmouth at the Stretford End. Dennis Viollet Avenue is a short distance away from the Britannia in Stoke. He has been inducted to the USL Hall of Fame, the Washington DC Soccer Hall of Fame and The Viollet Cup is contested between North Florida and Jacksonville University.
Perhaps his legacy is summed up best in a short, yet heartfelt, poem written by a friend on Viollet’s passing:
Though I am sad to leave you, though fate may seem unkind,
There is no sorrow in my heart, as I leave this life behind,
Fortune has dealt me shorter term, than three score years and ten,
But I have lived a thousand lives, in the hearts of other men,
For I have shared and treasured, the precious gift of few,
I have known the pleasure and the pride, of boyhood dreams come true,
I have tasted the thrill of victory, in the course of battles run,
I have soared aloft on the roar of the crowd, as another goal was won,
And if as they say a life is rich, with one single friend alone,
How great is the wealth of a man with friends, whose number is never known,
I think of the comrades I have loved, whose lives were cruelly stilled,
Weep for them, weep not for me, my life has been fulfilled,
Oft I have dined at the feast of joy, I have tasted the sweetest wine,
And who can say that he has shared, a love as deep as mine,
And so farewell yet do not grieve, think of me for a while,
Beyond a tear I’d rather be, remembered with a smile.
Dennis Viollet, a United man through and through.
“Dennis Viollet – A United Man” is available on DVD, Digital HD and Streaming via www.dennisviolletdocumentary.com