|20th September 2011, 16:43||#1|
Join Date: Oct 2004
Location: Houston Texas
Gone - But Not Forgotten
Gone – But Not Forgotten
September 20th marks the birth date of not only one of Manchester United’s greatest players, but also of one of the nicest human beings, a person could wish to meet. In today’s bloated and inflated transfer market, it would be difficult to put a price upon his talents. His record is there for all to see and he still holds the club record for the most goals scored by an individual in League matches during a season. It is a record that has stood for 50 years. It says much about the man that fans, not only in Manchester, but also in Stoke, and the United States, will instantly recognize that the person referred to is the late Dennis Viollet.
Dennis was a wonderful player, under-rated by the sportswriters, and certainly much maligned by the England team selectors of his time. Mention that famous team which became known as the ‘Busby Babes’ and it is the names of Edwards, Byrne and Taylor that are immediately brought to the fore. However, look a little below the surface and it becomes so apparent that the contribution made by Dennis Viollet played more than a large part in that team’s successes.
How good was he? Well, if I was asked to compare any modern day player with Dennis Viollet, then there is only one – and that would be Paul Scholes. Paul reminded me so much of Dennis – unselfish, wily, cunning, being difficult for defenders to pick up, always seeing the bigger picture, having the ability to pick out the killer pass, and being lethal in front of goal. However, unlike Scholes, Viollet never ever gave the referee an excuse to pull out his notebook and pencil. Both had similar temperaments – nothing fazed them at all. Like Paul, Dennis shunned the press and the limelight - he just went to work, did his job, and slipped away afterwards.
If I had to pick a couple of games out of the 293 which he played for United to remember him by, then I would select the game against Anderlecht on 26th September, 1957 when he scored 4 goals in a 10-0 blitz of the Belgian champions. That total could have been larger, because he spent much of the last fifteen minutes of the game trying to tee a goal up for David Pegg, the only forward not to score on that memorable night.
The other game would again be in that same season and that first European campaign, when United played the Spanish champions, Bilbao at Maine Road on 6th February 1957. United were down 5-3 from the first leg, and Dennis worked his socks off that night, fetching and carrying and trying to get that all important first goal. He had one goal dubiously disallowed for offside, but just before half-time he suddenly appeared ghosting into the box and fired home. That was the lift that the team needed, and in the second half he was so conspicuous with his supply of the ball to the United wingmen, and Tommy Taylor. It built pressure on the Spaniards, and eventually they cracked as United scored two more goals and went through 6-5 on aggregate.
It was a shock for the United fans when he was allowed to leave the club in 1962 – he’d been at Old Trafford since leaving school in 1948. But Denis being Denis, he hid his disappointment and went off to Stoke City and enjoyed five memorable years at the Victoria Grounds. Stoke City were then in the Second Division, but in his second season with the ‘Potters, he helped them gain promotion back to the top flight. Over the next few years, the Stoke City manager, Tony Waddington assembled an array of ageing stars for his team – Stanley Mathews, Jimmy McIlroy, Roy Vernon, Jackie Mudie, Peter Dobing, Eddie Clamp, Ron Stuart, Maurice Setters to name but a few. The Stoke City dressing room was a fun place to be. For Waddington, those old stars had so much experience and they gave him the time to bring his younger players through.
There was a human side to Dennis and there are so many tales to tell about him. He touched the lives of everybody he met and they were better for the experience. Once, when he found himself at Manchester Airport late on a Saturday evening, as he was about to leave he spotted a young lad bedding down on the seating there. There was nobody about and all flights had departed for that day. Dennis went across and spoke to the young man and found out that he was a United fan making his way back to Ireland, but had missed his flight and had to wait until the Sunday morning until he could continue his journey. Dennis did no more, took the lad home, billeted and fed him, and got him back to the airport the following morning. You could not imagine anything like that happening today.
In 1967, when his time was up at Stoke City they gave him a testimonial game which was played against England’s World Cup team. Dennis had an old school friend named Alan Wallace. They had played together in the same school team back in the late ‘40’s, and Dennis told him “You were there at the start of my soccer career, and I would like you to be there at the end of it.” Alan recalled; “I was delighted to be invited to Dennis’s testimonial. He wrote me a letter telling me that he was delighted I had accepted the invitation to be at the game. He took me into the England dressing room and introduced me to every one of the players. He also took me into the Stoke City dressing room and did the same thing. He treated me like a king.” Dennis gave Alan his fullest attention, introducing him to people and showing him the same warm friendship shown to the other more famous personalities present.
Dennis befriended Stoke player Bill Asprey. Asprey grew up in Dudley, the same home town as Duncan Edwards. Through Duncan, he got to know a lot of the United players of that time, and he remembered; “The first time that I actually met Dennis was one Saturday night in the Continental Club in Manchester. Dennis and Bobby Charlton were on stage singing a duet. It was great! Tommy Taylor also liked a sing along as well. All those lads from the ‘Babes’ were characters and wonderful company. Those nights were unforgettable occasions.
Dennis was a lovely fellow – down-to-earth, always ready for a bit of fun. As a player his technique was first class and his reading of situations was uncanny. I never ever saw him in trouble with a referee he relied on his skill and brilliant football brain. I never once in my career ever heard anybody speak derogatory of Dennis – a great footballer, a tremendous friend, and a wonderful human being.”
Dennis Smith the old Stoke centre half had just started his managerial career and was managing Oxford United. At an away fixture, after the game was over, he was seen and heard to be ushering his players out onto the team coach as he was in a hurry to get going. Smith was stopped by a person who went on to say how much he had admired Smith as a player. The man then mentioned Dennis Viollet. The young Oxford manager stopped and told him “I was in awe of Dennis Viollet” and he then proceeded to talk to the man for over half an hour about him.
The late Sir Stanley Mathews was to say; “There were moments in games when the ball came to Dennis and it was if a spotlight had fallen on him and every other player was in his shadow. Your eyes were drawn to him as he engineered, first space to work in, then proceeded to conjure up his own special brand of magic. Only when the ball had left Dennis’s feet did you see the opening as the ball glided across the turf just in front of one of our galloping forwards for the course of the game to be altered. Short pass, long pass, low pass, high pass, it mattered not one jot. Whatever it was, it was always the right pass when it came from Dennis.”
After leaving Stoke City, Dennis moved to the USA and the North American Soccer League. He joined the Baltimore Bays and he stayed for just a year. When he returned to UK he turned his hand to coaching as well as playing. He had spells at Witton Albion and Preston North End, but wasn’t happy and so decided to move to the USA. He was asked to coach at Baltimore Bays, and later, moved with them to Washington DC when they became the Diplomats. In 1978 Noel Cantwell the former Manchester United captain, took over as head coach at the New England Tea Men.
Noel was to recall; “I hadn’t seen Dennis for a few years. The next time I met up with him was when I had been offered the job with the New England Tea Men in Boston. Phil Woosnam whom I had known at West Ham and was one of the first British coaches to go to America, advised me to take it. I knew nothing about American soccer, so I thought to myself; “who can I get to help me?’ I thought of Dennis, got in touch with him, and he accepted the position of assistant coach. We got things moving in Boston and won our Eastern Division, and I was named Coach of the Year. The reality was that Dennis did as much coaching as I did, so really we were both Coaches of the Year. He was brilliant in every respect. Our families became very close and spent a number of years together in the States. It was the most enjoyable relationship of my life, a lovely man with a beautiful loving family.”
The Tea Men were moved to Jacksonville in Florida and in 1983 Dennis was appointed Head Coach when the team joined the American Soccer League. The team won Jacksonville’s first, and only professional sports championship. He was then appointed as Staff Coach to the Florida Youth Soccer Association. He progressed the game at all levels. He moved the game into colleges and University and took control of both the men and women’s programmes at Jacksonville University. His contribution to the development of the game in the United States cannot be questioned and it is a story that needs telling.
Dennis would have celebrated his 78th birthday today and I’ll leave you with his own words after he retired:
“No player has gained more pleasure from the great game of football than I have. But as I bow out, there is a little sadness for me. I see that the game is changing. The pattern is less colourful, and the individuals grow fewer and fewer. Football is now regimentation. Yet I have been privileged to spend the major part of my career with a club I have always considered the finest in the world – Manchester United. During those years, and after, I played with the greats like Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor, and the rest. I have also been thrilled to play with the illustrious Stanley Mathews, and against mighty footballers like Puskas and di Stefano. To me these were the football kins, ruling the game with their brilliance and overwhelming authority.”
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