'How Munich affected dad'
Hundreds of people gathered outside Old Trafford on Wednesday afternoon to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, and among them was Rachel Viollet, the daughter of United great and crash survivor Dennis Viollet.
After the short memorial service, we caught up with the Los Angeles-based filmmaker to speak about her dad and a day that shaped the rest of his life.
“This is the first time I’ve been here,” explained Rachel. “I’ve obviously been here to Old Trafford a few times with my dad over the years, which was always a great experience, but to be here for the anniversary itself with all the fans was the best thing, and it was quite emotional.
“I met a 90-year-old gentleman and he had tears in his eyes during the ceremony, so just meeting people from the past and the present – the older generation here with the younger generation – and to see what it means to the fans was very touching.
“You’ve got little babies here with their fathers, their mothers, their uncles and their grandparents, from generation to generation, passing down the legacy of the Busby Babes and keeping it in the family. There’s something very poignant about that."
For Rachel, who was brought up in the United States, Munich was something she learned about gradually.
“I grew up in the States, and my dad didn’t really talk about it much, unless I asked questions. I think he quite enjoyed living an anonymous life in the States, to be honest, but obviously when we would come over here that was a different story. We could barely make it to the ground without him being mobbed. I would say I was around 12 or 13 when I started to understand the magnitude of it and started asking questions about it, but like I said, he didn’t talk about it unless I asked questions, and then he was very open with me.
“It had a huge impact on his life. Throughout his life, it stayed with him. After Munich, he couldn’t sleep at night, so he was going out a lot, going out on the town, just because he couldn’t get to sleep. But certainly, after Munich, he valued life even more, lived it to the fullest and those memories certainly stayed with him. He spoke so fondly of those years with the Busby Babes under Sir Matt and they stayed with him and they affected his career as well -– the way he managed his teams [Dennis later managed in Ireland and the US].”
Dennis fell ill in 1997, on the way home from a final journey with his surviving team-mates, who were invited to that year’s Champions League final, in Munich, at the behest of UEFA.
“I remember when he received the letter [from UEFA]. He was very touched by it,” Viollet remembers. “It was the last time that he saw his surviving team-mates. It was also the first time he met Sir Alex, and he really enjoyed his company!
"But it meant an awful lot to him, that UEFA took the time to do that, to come over and honour the surviving players. I’m so glad he got to experience that, because he got ill shortly after – actually, he got ill on that trip.”
The Manchester-born forward left the club in 1962 to join Stoke City, and missed out on the club’s ‘60s rebirth, which began in 1963 with the FA Cup final win over Leicester City. But he left a strong legacy, which Rachel highlighted with her 2016 film Dennis Viollet: A United Man.
Viollet remains joint-fifth on the club’s all-time goalscoring list alongside George Best, with 179 goals, and still holds the record for most league goals scored in a season (32 goals in 36 games in 1959/60 – one better than Cristiano Ronaldo’s efforts in 2007/08).
“The impression I got after interviewing players that played with him, and also those that played against him, was that you could never read what he was going to do," said Rachel. "And he had an exceptional ability to read others. He was a very unselfish player; he was a players’ player.
“His team-mates loved playing with him, and he could read situations before other players could – that was my impression. There wasn’t a lot of footage around for me to watch, so a lot of my film was made of the testimonials and research, and talking to my father and his family. He was a special player and he had an eye for goal, that’s for sure. In the two seasons after Munich he scored 53 goals and he didn’t have the players around him that he had before Munich, so I think that was pretty exceptional."
Rachel herself has taken the club to heart, and her next planned project is a film biopic on the life of Sir Matt Busby – who she was introduced to by her dad when visiting Old Trafford as a youngster.
“Probably my two fondest memories were sitting in the stands with my dad, both watching a match and when he was interviewed – we were sitting in the stands together. The second was him introducing me to Sir Matt. I have very fond memories, and I think that’s why I’m such a supporter today. I’m from America, so if I hadn’t had that experience, I’m not sure I would be as big a supporter.
“I’ve got a film about Sir Matt in the works, so I’m over here doing some research and having a chat with people. I think it will be a film that United fans, especially, will be very proud of. Stay tuned!”