A young boy was sitting on his own after a particularly disappointing soccer training session. Looking down at his boots, he felt physically sick believing he had let his coach down.
The coach noticed this lonely figure, made his way over and put his arm around the forlorn player seemingly attuned to the pain that was filling the youngster but didn’t say anything at first allowing the moment to speak for itself. Finally, he spoke sagely to the boy:
“If you want to achieve your dream, you have to be prepared to chase it.” The coach paused to let the words sink in. “Figure out what your dream is Jeremy and you will make it. For certain”. There was a pause again before he finally said “now let’s get Rach and go have a great meal at Applebee’s!”
Those words were delivered to Jeremy Blain by a man simply known to him as “Uncle Dennis”. The rest of the soccer world better knows “Uncle Dennis” as Dennis Viollet, one of the first of Manchester United’s celebrated Busby Babes.
The journey of Dennis Viollet is an interesting, if undertold, story of a man whose impact on the game was not just restricted to his years at Old Trafford The striker had a successful playing spell at Stoke City before embarking on a mission to coach soccer in the US.
“Dennis was soccer in the US,” Blain said. “When I stayed with the family it was soccer 24/7. Dennis wasn’t just committed to soccer he ate it, drank it, breathed it, lived it, talked it, celebrated it, cursed it (occasionally!) and loved it. It was his other family. No question. Coach Viollet to this day is mentioned with a smile and with honor – and quite rightly too. Not many people outside the US will understand just how great an impact Dennis made on the game there – as a player in ‘those’ power teams and as a coach focused on building the game from the ground up, with American talent and with an eye on the long game – not just the short term wins.”
Indeed Viollet donned the jersey of the Baltimore Bays as well as the coaching the likes of the Washington Diplomats and the New England Tea Men.
Rachel Viollet, Dennis’ daughter, sought to tell the world about the trail her father blazed particularly his contribution to soccer in the United States producing and directing a documentary about his life: Dennis Viollet – A United Man. The production itself is a family affair with Blain teaming up with his cousin as an associate producer. Blain, who lives in Singapore, suggested the possibility of screening the documentary in Asia allowing Dennis’ story to be told to a whole new audience.
“Following the success of the other screenings around the world, it suddenly hit me to do it in Asia as an official premiere,” Blain explained. “I guess I was half joking at first – I didn’t know how Rachel would react. She was totally up for it and then, suddenly, we were ON!”
Having the idea to hold an Asian Premiere was the easy part, independently organizing a screening was another thing entirely. The first decision was ensure the screening wasn’t just a run-of-the mill affair so Blain along with fellow Associate Producer Duncan Merrin went to work on making the premiere a memorable affair.
“I soon became convinced that if we were going to do it, we needed to do it well, so we devised an evening event, featuring two films (the other being a documentary on Duncan Edward) and supporting souvenir packs, programmes, website etc. That’s when the challenges started. How to do it? Who to get to help us? Not easy,” Blain recalled. “I hit on the idea to bring sponsors on board and we ended up with three, so that took a huge cost away. Secondly I used our fantastic network out here of United fans, who were only too happy to give some of their time to help. For example Khalid Maideen in Chennai, did all our wonderful design, artwork and collateral.”
It helped that the cinema secured for the screening felt like a 50s or 60s stadium with an almost terrace like quality not to mention the fact that it was fully licensed. “Always good for footy fans,” Blain joked.
The Asian Premiere of “Dennis Viollet – A United Man” was duly held on March 17 complete with a raffle, a Q&A featuring ex-Manchester United defender Paul Parker and an auction for a jersey signed by Zlatan Ibrahimović.
But for all the fun and games, the main event was the screening of the Dennis Viollet documentary, an emotional experience Blain readily admitted.
“I spent time with the family when I was growing up and got to know my Uncle Dennis a bit. Seeing the full story on celluloid was stunning and helped me understand even more the legend that is Dennis Viollet. I was very proud to be associated with the film and to see it up there on the big screen in Singapore in front of over 150 guests was very moving,” said Blain “A couple of days prior to the official screening I was in the cinema on my own watching the film, to check the quality. It was a very special feeling and I don’t mind admitting that a tear or two was shed. Not very ‘Manchester lad’ like – but there you go! Amazing experience. The post script to this, of course, is that over half the audience were in tears also at the end of the film. Job done!”
Among those moved by the documentary was former United defender Paul Parker who wasn’t fully aware of Viollet’s achievements at United particularly the striker’s 32 goal haul in the 1959/60 league season, a feat made all the more remarkable coming one year after surviving the Munich air disaster. It was Viollet’s humble nature that really struck a chord with Parker, indeed during the Q&A session the ex-United fullback said if given the opportunity he would screen the documentary to young players in the modern professional game to help them get a sense of grounding.
“I feel Paul was moved by the man himself,” Blain observed. “Not many people will know this but Paul is an incredibly humble guy. He gave a huge amount to this event and helped us get hold of a signed Zlatan shirt and 2 tickets for a home match – this was a massive injection into the evening event that created excitement and involvement. Dennis was also a humble man and never liked to blow his own trumpet. He was a dedicated to the game during his player career and after, in the USA. Paul shares some of that.”
Parker’s admiration of Viollet was matched by the official Manchester United Supporters Club in Singapore. Few members really knew about Viollet’s legacy so the documentary was an eye-opening experience especially his achievements post-United. “The feedback I have received since from members has been overwhelmingly positive. They just couldn’t believe the contribution that Dennis made to United, Stoke and to MLS in the early days,” said Blain.
The Asia-Pacific Premiere of Dennis Viollet – A United Man was a personally satisfying event for Blain seeing his uncle’s story told to a whole new audience and plans are already afoot for more screenings around Asia with India and Malaysia being looked at as the next ports of call.
The experience organizing the Asian Premiere brought to the surface just how much of an influence “Coach Viollet” was on Blain.
“It’s funny, my leadership and coaching style in business mirrors Dennis in many ways and I hadn’t put two and two together until fairly recently. Immersing myself again in the Viollet world helped me see the influence of Uncle Dennis not just then but now.”
And that boy who felt he let down his coach took on board the words of wisdom of the former Manchester United great.
“I followed my own dreams and – voila – one successful Asia Pacific Premiere, in the bag! Thanks for the advice Uncle Dennis.”
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