50 Years On – Dennis Viollet – Unsung Hero
Dennis Sydney Viollet was born in Fallowfield, Manchester on September 20th, 1949. He lived, and went to school, in close proximity to Manchester City’s famous old stadium, Maine Road. In fact, as a young boy, Dennis was an ardent Manchester City fan! As he grew up through the war years, and then the immediate post war years, he became a prolific schoolboy footballer. His progression from school team, to Area team, to the Manchester Boys team brought him to the attention of first the Lancashire County Schoolboy selectors, and after playing in the North versus South schoolboys game, the England Schoolboy selectors. He was a young player that had enormous potential to progress to the professional game, and during the six times that he played for England Schoolboys, there was no shortage of football scouts from England’s top teams sat there watching him perform with a hope that they could persuade him to sign for their club.
The opinion of that time was that he would sign for Manchester City, but Manchester United had other ideas, and Joe Armstrong was able to weave his magic and persuade the likeable young Mancunian to join United where Matt Busby’s youth policy was beginning to be implemented. On September 1st 1949, just three weeks prior to his sixteenth birthday, dennis put pen to paper and became one of the original “Busby Babes.”
For the next few years he played for the junior and ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams where his progress was monitored under the watchful eyes of Jimmy Murphy, Billy Inglis, and Bert Whalley. Dennis watched as more and more talented youngsters joined the Manchester United playing staff. Dennis’s performances were good and by 1951/52 he had become something of regular in the United reserve team. It was difficult for him to break into the first team as both Stan Pearson and Johnny Downie, United’s inside forwards, were on top form in a season which saw Manchester United lift the First Division Championship for the first time since 1911. However, that championship winning team was getting old, and the following season Busby experimented with different players – and especially after Tommy Taylor was signed and he tried to find the perfect foil for him. Frank Clempson, Eddie Lewis, and particularly Jack Rowley were all tried there.
On April 11th 1953, at St. James’ Park, Newcastle, Dennis Viollet made his first team debut. It was also a significant day for another young man who was to play a major part in Manchester United’s history some years later…. Les Olive. Les, who went on to become the Manchester United Club Secretary immediately after Munich, made the first of his only two appearances ever, in the first team. It was a Manchester united team that had a real unfamiliar look about it and read; Olive; McNulty, Byrne; Carey, Chilton, Whitefoiot; Viollet, Pearson, Aston, Taylor and Rowley. United won the game by 2-1 with Tommy Taylor scoring both goals. The following week the very same team earned a 2-2 draw against West Bromwich Albion and Dennis was able to celebrate after scoring one of United’s goals – the first of many in his career. He was left out of the next game, a home league fixture against Liverpool which was won 3-1 at Old Trafford, but he returned for the last game of the 1952/53 season which was away at Middlesborough and Un ited crashed to a 5-0 defeat. He had played in 3 of the last 4 games of that season, and he had proved to himself that he could play at that level.
The following season, 1953/54 was to be Dennis Viollet’s breakthrough season. He played in a couple of games earlier on, but then on October 31st 1953, in the famous game at Leeds Road, Huddersfield, when Alf Clarke christened the team Busby’s “Bouncing Babes” He was selected along with several other youngsters notably Edwards and Blanchflower. From that moment on he became first choice inside left and he forged a tremendous partnership with Tommy Taylor, one that was to produce a phenomenal number of goals between them. Their understanding became telepathic and they complimented each other so well. They could read each others play and dennis would profit from the many times big Taylor would hang in the air and nonchalantly nod the ball down into the space into which Violklet would ghost into. On the reverse side, Dennis was adept at slipping quick through balls between defenders from which would set Taylor free and it wasn’t very often that he missed.
Dennis played a huge part in helping the “Babes” secure their first First Division title in 1955/56, and the following year, 1956/57 he was absolutely outstanding and it was certainly a travesty that he wasn’t capped for England at that time. United had gone into Europe and again his performances and goals coring feats were tremendous. Unfortunately for him, he picked up a groin injury towards the end of that 1956/57 season, and that was to cost him dearly. He played in a number of games when he wasn’t fully fit and he missed a number of games towards the end of that season. He was back for the last two league games but he was still struggling and Busby decided to leave him out of the FA Cup Final line up against Aston Villa at Wembley, preferring to play Bobby Charlton. It was devastating for him.
The following season between late October and early December he missed nine games because the injury flared up again. He came back against Birmingham City on December 7th and between that date and the game in Belgrade against Red Star on February 5th 1958, he scored 14 goals in 13 games. Of course then came Munich and Dennis received some bad head injuries. He did return to first team duty in late April of 1958 in the hope of helping United lift the FA Cup. He played in two games prior to the Final and it was obvious that he still needed time. However Jjimmy Murphy did select him to play against Bolton Wanderers, but Dennis did not function so well and the same could be said for the rest of the team. The emotion and time caught up with them.
After the season of 1957/58 finished Dennis went away and recharged his batteries. Although he was capped for England and broke the club scoring record, he still wasn’t the player he was before the accident. My good friend John White recalls:
“There have been so many players in my 55 years of watching Manchester United, some great, some not so great. Memories can fade quite quickly, some linger for a time and then fade away, but always with players of quality, the memory seemingly is as fresh today as it was those many years ago. Dennis Viollet fell into the quality category, for he was a player with presence and you NEVER forget the players that have that!
Make no mistake about it - for those of you who unlucky enough never to see him play, Dennis Viollet was a player. His movement was not unlike that of our other Denis, Denis Law. Like Law, he too was only 5’9” and 10 stone wringing wet. He was quick was Dennis, not just physically, but also in his thinking and over that vital first couple of yards. He was a natural goalscorer of course and natural goalscorers 'see' situations that others can’t spot. He could read the game - the ebb and flow and pattern of it - and then decide where he HAD to be at the crucial moment. That just can’t be taught - you’ve either got it or you haven’t. If you haven’t got it, then you can never acquire it – it’s a born-with thing. Dennis had it in abundance. He was mercurial.
Over the years since the crash I have often thought what would have become of Manchester United had the crash never been. We would I’m certain have succeeded to the throne of European football held by that great but ageing Real Madrid side who dominated the European Cup in the 50’s. Not a doubt in my mind about that. Furthermore, the English players coming through Matt’s sides would have solidly served England’s World Cup bids in ’58 and again in ’62. Maybe England might have won the World Cup before ’66. But if’s , but’s and maybe’s can’t disguise the fact that it was we United fans that suffered the greatest loss.
I have also spent a lot of time thinking about how good a player Dennis Viollet might have become had Munich never happened. He would have become something very special. I’m convinced of that. He was only just turned 24 by the time of the Munich crash and the whole side were beginning to hum like a well-oiled machine. There maybe would never have been any need for the signing of our other great Denis.
Some of the boys of 58 lost their careers as a result of the crash. It wasn’t so with Dennis but I have always felt he lost something special too. He lost the potential or the desire for true greatness that would and should have been his. He like other survivors played on through the dark days that followed Munich. The burden wasn’t only that United’s make-shift side were struggling to find anything like a rhythm. Dennis and Bobby along with Albert Scanlon, Harry Gregg, Billy Foulkes and Kenny Morgans had to bear the burden - and the guilt - of having survived!! Jackie Blanchflower and Johnny Berry had their careers finished by the crash-induced injuries. Ray Wood hardly ever stood between the sticks again for United.
To have seen United pre-Munich, and then to see them during 59, '60 and '61 was a very sad experience. For me, to see these lads trying to re-launch our club’s hopes and dreams and to re-ignite that fire of greatness - at the same time as each of them had to have been living and battling through the most horrible personal nightmare - was a shockingly destructive experience. It was for me the hidden tragedy resulting from Munich and so many promising careers certainly were destroyed by being forced to grow before their time.
Like a great number of United fans, I was both shocked and saddened to hear that Dennis was to leave Old Trafford in January1962. Perhaps the arrival of David Herd and the imminent arrival of Denis Law were factors in Matt Busby’s decision to sell Dennis to Stoke City – who knows?
It was never made clear but on he went on to a very successful second career with Stoke City – a club who to their eternal credit gave Dennis a testimonial after his 5 years , 200 + appearances, 66 goals from midfield for the Potters , a 2nd division winner’s medal and a League cup runner’s –up medal in ‘64. – which Dennis delivered - playing like a good old pro - from midfield!!
Like all great goal-scorers, he would get in amongst the flailing feet without regard to his own safety in pursuit of netting THE critical goal. Although never a big man as I've said, he was like many other dedicated goal-scorers, brave beyond the call of duty.
He was called upon to demonstrate that bravery in his final challenge - the one against brain cancer in the States where he made his home in Jacksonville Florida.
Poignantly, at just after 3.00 pm on Saturday 6 March 1999, (Kick–off time) Dennis died at the age of 65.
He was inducted into the first class of the United States Soccer Hall of Fame in 2002. The annual University of North Florida/Jacksonville University football match ( they call it soccer but I can't!) has been contested for the Viollet Cup since 2001.”
Dennis Viollet played 293 games for Manchester United in all competitions and scored 179 goals.
He won 2 England caps scoring 1 goal.
God bless you Dennis – sleep in Peace. Thank you for your tremendous contribution – both to my personal memories and to the cause of Manchester United over those momentous years of the 50's and early 60's.