The mere mention of Dennis Viollet conjures up images of a clinical striker scoring goals for Sir Matt Busby’s Manchester United. The name of the Busby Babe is permanently etched in the Old Trafford club’s history books being the first player to score in European competition for United as well as holding the record for the most number of league goals in a single campaign, 32 in the 1959-60 season. It is a tally that has yet to be bettered.
He was the man Sir Matt Busby turned to and made captain of Manchester United after the Munich air disaster and he served the club with distinction scoring 179 goals in 293 appearances.
However Viollet’s soccer career was more than just his time as a Babe. He led Stoke City from the old Second Division to the First and most intriguingly left England for the United States to continue his soccer journey.
It’s a period of his life chronicled in “Dennis Viollet – A United Man” a documentary produced and directed by his daughter Rachel Viollet.
“I think he initially loved the enthusiasm surrounding the formation of the NASL. To be at the forefront of bringing pro soccer to America must have been very exciting! My dad loved new challenges,” she said.
Indeed Dennis was fond of America, having visited the US in the 1950s with Manchester United. “He really enjoyed the relaxed lifestyle,” revealed Rachel Viollet. So in hindsight it perhaps wasn’t surprising that the former United striker grasped the opportunity to start a new life in America.
Unfortunately for Dennis his first stint in America was somewhat of a false start. Viollet signed on in 1967 to play for the Baltimore Bays in the National Professional Soccer League but shortly afterwards the NPSL merged with the United Soccer Association to form the North American Soccer League. The instability surrounding the NPSL and the Baltimore Bays forced Viollet to return to England where he had an ill-fated tenure as manager of Crewe Alexandra.
It was a difficult period in Dennis Viollet’s life who reluctantly signed on for unemployment benefit to support his young family, an experience he found “humiliating” in the words of his wife Helen especially in the light of his illustrious playing career at Manchester United.
But Viollet had an opportunity to return to the US to coach the relaunched Baltimore Bays. There was the twin appeal of making a new start whilst being able to tend to some unfinished business.
“Yes, I think that was part of it,” Rachel admitted of her father’s desire to return to the US. “When he left America the first time, the professional game was in turmoil. He would not have returned unless he felt America was ready for a mainstream pro league. Keep in mind, his return was in a different capacity, coaching. He had gone through a lot of personal and professional changes, so a fresh beginning in America was very appealing.”
Once again Viollet endured difficulties at the Baltimore Bays but the situation became more stable when the club moved to Washington and changed their name to the Diplomats. Viollet enjoyed a number of seasons there before becoming assistant coach to Noel Cantwell, his former teammate at Manchester United, at the New England Tea Men in 1968.
Moreover and unsurprisingly given his Manchester United upbringing, Viollet looked to develop soccer at a grassroots level in America. His soccer clinics, based in Florida, allowed him to teach American youths the Jimmy Murphy-Matt Busby philosophy and that message has continued to spread.
“What’s amazing is when I see players that my father coached, who are now youth coaches themselves, passing on my dad’s philosophy. Great to see the Manchester United legacy living on in America!” Rachel exclaimed.
Despite soccer not being a mainstream sport in America during his time the former United star didn’t find it hard to garner interest in his schools. “It wasn’t that difficult for him to become established because there was a real hunger from kids to play the game,” Rachel explained. “The new pro league had created such an excitement and curiosity, but there weren’t many resources available. My dad’s soccer school provided a much needed outlet for kids to learn the game.”
And he achieved this without having or choosing to publicize his decorated playing career at Manchester United. “He wasn’t a self-promoter,” his daughter confessed. “During the 1980s when he started his soccer schools, United were not the recognizable brand they are today. Americans didn’t care as much. By the 1990’s as soccer grew in the United States, and Manchester United became more successful under Sir Alex, dad’s achievements were much more publicized.”
Indeed if anything was driving Dennis Viollet to coach it was to see the game grow and take off even at the expense of his own wallet. His wife Helen, who dealt with the finances of Viollet’s soccer clinics recalled that he wouldn’t turn away anyone looking to play.
“My dad was always helping people,” Rachel said. “He wanted soccer to grow, and he loved seeing children enjoy the game. He made sure that money was never an obstacle for a kid who wanted to play.”
No matter where he was whether holding his own clinics, coaching Jacksonville University, the Richmond Kickers or the Jacksonville Cyclones, Dennis Viollet ensured that developing American talent stayed at the heart of his philosophy.
“He was very proud of his soccer school in Jacksonville, Florida,” Rachel highlighted. “Also, the success he had with the Richmond Kickers winning the USISL and US Open Cup in 1996. A lot of those players went on to play in MLS.”
Indeed Rachel Viollet believes that her father would be extremely encouraged by the state of soccer in the United States with the progression of MLS as well as the men’s and women’s national teams. Unfortunately for Dennis he didn’t have the chance himself to coach a Major League Soccer franchise, an ambition of his.
Dennis Viollet passed away from cancer on March 6, 1999, aged 65.
Viollet’s legacy in American soccer lives on though; he was elected in the Washington DC and United States Soccer Leagues Hall of fame, the Dennis Viollet Soccer Training Center in Longwood, Florida was named in his honor whilst The Viollet Cup is contested between North Florida and Jacksonville University.
Amongst all his contributions to American soccer Rachel Viollet attests that there’s one that stands out above all else. “Without question, his ability to inspire young people to go after their dreams,” she said.
Maybe it’s fitting that Dennis Viollet’s legacy in American soccer is similar to that of his at Manchester United, understated but undeniably important. It’s a legacy that’s explored in Rachel Viollet’s documentary of her father.
Whether in Manchester or in the US, Dennis Viollet was truly “A United Man”.
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