Obituary: Dennis Viollet

Ivan Ponting
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:48

THERE IS a compelling case for citing the Busby Babes as the most joyously precocious collection of soccer talent ever drawn together under the banner of one English club. That Manchester United team, so savagely devastated by the Munich air disaster in 1958, boasted the likes of Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne and Eddie Colman, and there was a young fellow called Bobby Charlton who could play a bit, too. Yet one of the side's key performers was widely and peculiarly underrated, though not, it should be emphasised, by Matt Busby himself.

In terms of appearance, Dennis Viollet did not correspond with the popular image of a goal-scoring hero. Wan of countenance and slim to the point of scrawniness, he seemed pathetically equipped physically to mix it with strapping defenders. Yet the prolific Mancunian was a gem, both as a foil for the magnificent Taylor and as a marksman in his own right. Indeed, the fact that no one - not Law, not Best, not Cantona - has netted more times than he in a single season for the Red Devils offers telling evidence of his rare calibre.

Viollet was blessed with instinctive ball control, searing acceleration and the vision to use these attributes to full advantage. Arguably he was at his most effective when working in tandem with Taylor, the bold Yorkshireman who lost his life on that slushy German runway. Big Tommy was majestic in the air while his less conspicuous but formidably lethal partner was a steel dart at ground level. During the mid-1950s when the Babes were sweeping all before them, the duo struck up a seemingly telepathic understanding, creating space for each other by their imaginative movement and registering a river of goals that showed no signs of drying up.

Yet, while Taylor was rewarded by frequent international recognition, the equally if contrastingly talented Viollet had to wait until two years after the crash before winning the first of only two England caps, a circumstance rendered all the more mysterious by the uninspired nature of some of his rivals.

However, nothing could detract from Viollet's derring-do on the club scene. After captaining Manchester schoolboys - and also playing regularly for his country at that stage - he joined Manchester United as an amateur in 1949, turning professional a year later and making his first-team debut in 1952/53.

Thereafter he held his own against white-hot competition as Busby's youthful revolution gathered exhilarating momentum and he won a regular place during 1953/54. Settling brilliantly at inside-left and contributing at least 20 senior goals per season, Viollet went on to share in a succession of heady triumphs, notably the League Championships of 1955/56 and 1956/57. As United blazed a trail into Europe, his pedigree shone through ever more vividly and his evident relish for continental opposition made his sojourn in the international wilderness increasingly perplexing.

Cruelly, the United idyll was halted at Munich, on the way home from a European Cup trip to Belgrade, when the club's plane crashed on its third attempt at take-off. Eight players and 15 other passengers died but Viollet, seated next to Charlton, was thrown clear and survived.

As the extent of the tragedy sunk in, it was feared that even those footballers who had escaped with their lives would never be the same again, Viollet had suffered head injuries and took no part in United's immediate future, missing their emotional progress to the FA Cup Final. However, after a couple of League outings he was pronounced fit enough to play at Wembley, where he proved sadly unable to do himself justice in the defeat by Bolton Wanderers.

However, fears that Viollet might be diminished as a performer in the long term were banished rapidly during 1958/59 when, converted to Taylor's old role as centre-forward, he excelled as the depleted Red Devils confounded most predictions by finishing as First Division runners-up. Come the following campaign his form was even more remarkable as he notched 32 goals in 36 matches, which remains a club record despite the wealth of expensive strikers employed at Old Trafford over the subsequent four decades. As a result the long- awaited England call arrived, though Viollet was to be granted only a paltry two games among the elite.

Still, it seemed certain that he would retain a vital part in Busby's team-rebuilding process for the foreseeable future, but the great manager decreed otherwise. In came David Herd from Arsenal, plans were laid to capture Denis Law from Torino and Viollet - having scored 178 goals in 291 games and hardly a has-been at 28 - sold to Stoke City for pounds 25,000 in January 1962.

Happily, that was not the end of the footballing world for the popular, easy-going Viollet. Lining up alongside the amazing Stanley Matthews, who was old enough to be his father, he helped the Potters take the Second Division title in his first full season and he remained productively at the Victoria Ground until 1967.

After that Viollet joined British soccer's mini-exodus to the United States, serving two summers with Baltimore Bays, before recrossing the Atlantic for a brief stint with non-League Witton Albion in 1969. Later that year he joined Linfield as player-coach and did well in Ulster, pocketing an Irish Cup winner's medal for his pains in 1970.

There followed a coaching spell at Preston North End in 1970, an abortive flirtation with management at Crewe in 1971 - he was sacked after his side was knocked out of the FA Cup by non-League opposition - and a more fulfilling engagement in charge of football for Washington Diplomats between 1974 and 1977.

Viollet went on to achieve further coaching success in the States, settling in Jacksonville, Florida, his home at the time of his death.

Ivan Ponting

Dennis Sydney Viollet, footballer; born Manchester 30 September 1933; played for Manchester United 1949-62, Stoke City 1962-67, Baltimore Bays, USA 1967-68, non-League Witton Albion 1969, Linfield, Northern Ireland 1969-70; capped twice by England 1960-61; managed Crewe Alexandra 1971; twice married; died Jacksonville, Florida 6 March 1999.

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