Dennis Viollet: A United Man (2016)

‘Dennis Viollet: A United Man’ (2016) and a Busby Babe survivor

Rachel Viollet’s documentary may have started as a memorial to her father, Dennis Viollet of Manchester United fame. But as she conducted interviews and collected history, her film also became an intriguing record of how the soccer world changed around him and because of him.

A Busby Babe who survived the plane crash

Dennis Viollet was a Busby Babe. He was 24 years old, sitting next to Bobby Charlton, when he and 7 teammates survived the 1958 Munich air disaster. 8 teammates counted among the 23 of 42 passengers and crew who died. United is a feature film I’ve reviewed about the Busby Babes, but Viollet’s character did not play a significant role, so that I didn’t know his part until I watched this documentary.

When watching both films, this documentary adds stirring background and context to the ManU story. The film United covered the angles of coach Jimmy Murphy and the Manchester United organization. Rachel, on the other hand, interviews her father’s teammates about the crash and its effect on their well-being.

Some players quit from injuries or survivor’s guilt, and some carried on. Perhaps because Viollet saw the need to live life fully, after seeing it taken away so early from his friends, he established the ManU single-season scoring record 2 seasons later. But for their lifelong struggles, the players’ families received little financial or emotional support from the club. In 1999 at age 65, Viollet died of brain cancer in the area of the head injury he suffered in the plane crash.

From a friend’s poem in Viollet’s honor at his passing:

How great is the wealth of a man with friends, whose number is never known…

– a speaker at Dennis Viollet’s funeral

Before footballers were celebrities

Through the players, we also learn what the football business was like at the time. Footballers did not live a celebrity life. Relative to the huge gate receipts they were bringing in, footballers supplied virtually free labor and had to work other jobs to support their families. They were as poor or poorer than their fans. (Unfortunately, many MLS players today are in the same situation.) Rachel lays down the notion that Busby’s Babes made soccer so visible and popular that it helped launch the rise of the EPL.

The second half of the movie covers what happened after Viollet’s illustrious playing career ended. Reduced to collecting unemployment, he chose to migrate to the USA and ended up playing in the NASL. This lead to a long career coaching in Jacksonville, Florida, where there is now an eponymous soccer facility named in his honor. Dennis Viollet is a prime example of growing the game in a region, and even a country, that knew nothing about soccer.

Raised in Florida, Rachel Viollet didn’t know how famous her father was until she accompanied him on a trip to England at age 12. She went on to her own pro athlete career in tennis. Around the time she retired, she was inspired to make this documentary after hearing that playwright Arthur Miller’s daughter planned to do the same for her father.

Character flaws

I had one small issue with the film. It is largely honest, affectionately admitting that Viollet could drink a lot and pursued the ladies despite being married. These two character flaws may have been reasons he was only called up twice for England. But upon further research, I was disappointed to realize that the film neglects to mention his 4 children with his first wife, and that she was pregnant with their third child at the time of the plane crash. Regardless, the movie is worth watching.

7 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 7