Dennis Viollet's greatest season ever

Tuesday 11 April 2023 18:30

From Sandy Turnbull in the early years of the last century through to Marcus Rashford in the current side, Manchester United have been blessed with a profusion of lethal marksmen.

But no Red has offered a more incisive cutting edge than Dennis Viollet in 1959/60, when he plundered 32 goals in 36 games, setting a club record for league football that has never been beaten. 

You can be forgiven for thinking such an achievement was reached during our period of dominance under then-manager Sir Matt Busby, but quite remarkably, the reality is that Viollet’s prolific campaign was in the wake of the Munich Air Disaster in 1958 as Busby built his side from the ground up. 

By the beginning of 1959/60, having survived the crash but still recovering mentally from its ravages, Viollet had succeeded stalwart defender Bill Foulkes as captain and was preparing for a new season for which expectations were distinctly mixed. 

On the 70th anniversary of Viollet’s debut for the club, we’re taking a look back on his greatest season ever. 
Viollet scored 32 league goals in one campaign, 1959/60 - a club record that stands today.
Viollet led out his troops to face West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns in the season’s opener and he set a sterling example. 

Operating at centre-forward between two gifted inside men – Albert Quixall and Bobby Charlton – and with Warren Bradley and Albert Scanlon flying down the flanks, the skipper posed a lethal menace and put United ahead after 18 minutes with a smart finish.

However, there was no disguising the West Midlanders’ overall superiority and they claimed a deserved 3-2 victory – although Viollet, who also scored our second goal, had turned in a terrific personal display. 

“Dennis was a phenomenally sharp striker,” Sir Bobby Charlton once recalled. “He would feint to shoot, his marker would lunge; Dennis would wriggle into half a yard of space, then the defender would be off balance, and that’s when our man would hit the ball. 

“He was an artist, and that’s why he still holds our scoring record [for one league season].” 

The first game of the 1959/60 campaign was just a small glimpse into the scintillating form that Viollet was about to hit. 

There were braces in three of the first four games – his displays as Newcastle United were pipped 3-2 at Old Trafford and Chelsea cuffed 6-3 at Stamford Bridge were outstanding – and he continued to gather momentum as autumn turned into winter.

By early December, Viollet had netted 20 times and by the turn of the year, further fortified by his only hat-trick of the season in a 5-1 shredding of Nottingham Forest at the City Ground, he had stretched his tally to 23. 

Viollet leading United out as club captain.
Viollet meshed beautifully with the genius Charlton and the subtly perceptive Quixall, while linking productively with wingers Bradley and Scanlon, often roaming to the touchlines and interchanging positions. 

But his goalscoring run suffered when the Reds hit a run of poor form, which included an experimental positional change in a 4-0 defeat to Preston – suffice to say he was back in his no.9 shirt before Busby’s side lined up for the next game. 

Injuries also played their part, and Viollet was eventually sidelined for six of the last seven games through knee problems. While United finished seventh in the First Division table, our prolific forward settled for a remarkable 32-goal campaign – a record-breaking figure that still stands today. 
Viollet and his team-mates after winning the Champions League in 1956.
Although he resigned from his role as captain, Viollet still had a lot to give at Old Trafford at the start of the 1960/61 season, though an injury halted his electric start. 

He finished the season with 16 goals in 27 appearances, which contributed to the shockwaves sent through Old Trafford when he made his eventual move to Stoke City the following year. 

His United account was closed with 179 goals in 293 games for the club after making his debut on 11 April 1953. While his goalscoring record may suggest otherwise, Viollet only ever found himself called up to represent his country on two occasions, to the dismay of those who watched him play week in and week out. 

In spite of that, Dennis Viollet, who passed away in 1999, retains an unperishable niche in Manchester United folklore, a goalscoring hero whose feat some five decades earlier has never been eclipsed.