Manchester United striker Dennis Viollet was one of the greatest, and so is his wife.
Helen Viollet was married to legendary Manchester United striker Dennis Viollet, who, with Bobby Charlton, spearheaded the young team created by Matt Busby and known as “Busby’s Babes.” Viollet was one of the survivors of the Munich air disaster in 1958 that decimated the Babes, killing eight team members along with 14 other passengers. Phenomenally, he still holds Manchester United’s single-season goal-scoring record with 32 goals from just 36 appearances, two seasons after Munich. Helen Viollet lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where she and Dennis raised their daughter Rachel (who went on to represent Britain at tennis), and where Dennis was coaching before his death, at age 65, in 1999. She talks to her childhood friend from Prestwich, Manchester, John Heilpern, about life with Dennis in an era when WAGs had yet to be invented.
John Heilpern: Were you always a football fan?
Helen Viollet: I wasn’t that interested at first, to be honest. Dennis used to drop me off at a movie on match days and pick me up after the game smelling of carbolic soap. I’d say, “Did you score, Den?” And he’d say, “I did, actually.”
They used it in the communal bath. In those days the teams bathed together in a communal bath after all the games. One of the players, a great character, used to leap on other players in the bath and give them love bites! They had to go home and explain them to their wives and girlfriends. Well, I thought it was hysterical and so did Dennis. But it’s amazing, isn’t it? Communal baths! Carbolic soap! Players have their own luxury showers nowadays, as well as their personal hairdressers and handlers to carry their bags two yards, and probably their own tattoo artists.
Star players earn millions today, of course. Dennis played in the wrong era.
It’s a bit ridiculous how much they now earn, isn’t it? But good luck to them! Just think, though: It’s 55 years that Dennis has held the goal-scoring record at Manchester United. It hasn’t been broken by Ronaldo when he played for Man U, or George Best, Eric Cantona, Wayne Rooney. Van Persie came closest in his best season with the club. But the record still stands. So I think it’s fair to say that if Dennis were playing today, he would be earning a few million.
You don’t seem bothered about it.
I’ve never been very impressed by money. There are other things in life. And Den wasn’t bitter about it—or about anything. He thought he was blessed to play football for a living. He just loved playing the game.
I take it, then, he didn’t live with you in a mansion in the countryside outside Manchester and drive a Maserati or a Rolls.
You must be joking! He was thrilled when he earned £60 a week.
What car did he drive?
A Morris Minor. It’s the equivalent of a Volkswagen Bug. The windows used to steam up a lot. He drove a family car later, a Ford Corsair. Footballers then were really no different from anyone else. They were well known, they were famous, but they were part of the community.
They were folk heroes.
Folk heroes whose lives were little different to the way the fans lived. They went to the same pubs everyone went to. Working-class fans were raised the same way as Dennis. He was a local Manchester lad who was born in a council house, a stone’s throw from Manchester City’s old football ground, Main Road. When he was a kid, he played football in the street—if not with a battered football, with a tennis ball. He was one of the local boys who were allowed into Main Road’s “Little Lads Corner” on match days. The club used to let the poor kids into the ground to watch the game for the last 15 minutes.
When did you meet Dennis?
I first clapped eyes on him when I was 16. I was helping out in my father’s jewelry shop in Deansgate, in the center of Manchester. A lot of footballers went into the shop. Tommy Taylor, who died in the Munich disaster, was one. Bobby Charlton was another. He bought his engagement ring in the shop. One day, Dennis came in, and I was sitting in the back of the shop when an assistant said excitedly, “That’s Dennis Viollet out front.” We didn’t meet then, but I knew who he was because as a Munich survivor he was legend.
The entire city of Manchester went into trauma after the crash, didn’t it? I was a schoolboy at the time and the school practically couldn’t function.
I think it affected Dennis for the rest of his life. He rarely talked about it, but he never slept through the night after Munich. Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne [the team captain he roomed with], Duncan Edwards … all the bodies of his teammates scattered through the snow …
Tell us about how you actually met Dennis.
I was 21, and it was in the Kardomah in St. Anne’s Square. The KD, as it was known, was a popular coffee place in the center of town. They served everything on toast. You could get mushrooms on toast. Everyone went there. I was working in the nearby department store called Lewis’s at the time. I demonstrated ladderless stockings. They never wore out. Anyway, I’d gone to the KD for lunch, and Dennis came over and asked me out. I actually said no. He asked why. “I couldn’t,” I said. “You’re married.” Dennis got married when he was 18. He was now 26. He was a very charming man. We met at a pub named the Shakespeare for a drink that evening.
You succumbed to his charms?
I did. Very much so! I was totally disarmed. I’d never met anyone like him.
It must be said that, in terms of dating women, Dennis was the George Best of his day.
I can understand why women fell for him. He charmed them all, including me. Absolutely! When we got married, his divorce had just come through at last, and he said to me, “For two minutes I was the most eligible bachelor in Manchester after George Best!” The thing about Den is that he liked women. He was modest, never show-off, he was fun, and he was always himself. But when we got serious, I surprised him. “We’re having a great relationship,” I said to him, “and if you want to go out with other women, that’s OK—provided I go out with who I want too.”
That was telling him!
He looked shell-shocked!
But it worked. You were happily married to him for 29 years and together for 34 years. You were a WAG before WAGs existed.
Before even Posh Spice existed! Posh was the first, in the mid-1990s. When I was still at school, the original Posh and Becks were Joy Beverly and her husband, Billy Wright, the longtime captain of England. Joy and her twin sisters, Teddy and Babs, were the most famous singing trio in the country. Do you remember the Beverly Sisters’ hit song, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”?
I do, unfortunately. Joy and Billy were the Posh and Becks of ’50s England?
Except that Joy was a housewife and Billy wasn’t exactly Becks. Joy didn’t design her own fashion line or her own perfume and range of beauty products. I don’t think she was photographed in Vogue or on the beach in Majorca, either. When I met Dennis, the girls who went out with footballers were more like the girl next door. Hot models didn’t go out with footballers in Manchester then. They went after local businessmen who drove Jaguars.
Were you ever asked for your autograph?
No, footballers’ wives and girlfriends weren’t celebs then. We didn’t wear designer sunglasses or pink glitz. We weren’t followed anywhere by paparazzi. We didn’t even shop much. Besides, there was no Gucci or Prada in Manchester until years later. Nor were the footballers celebs, really. Women didn’t necessarily know who they even were. Dennis was asked for his autograph all the time by fans, but he could still disappear into a crowd. There wasn’t the international exposure of football on TV there is today. If Wayne Rooney appears in public, he’s practically mobbed, and his wife, Colleen, is nationally famous. Can you imagine if other globally famous players like Messi or Ronaldo suddenly appeared strolling through town? They couldn’t do it. They’re trapped a little bit by their own fame. They’re like rock stars. Barcelona’s Gerard Piqué married one, Shakira. It’s a different world, isn’t it?
What’s the biggest difference for WAGs, then and now?
England managers like Sir Alf Ramsey and Fabio Capello actually disapproved of WAGS! They tried to keep them away from matches. They thought they affected how the team performed. They thought they upset the players’ composure. Today, WAGS travel in groups to the England games. They’re interviewed and photographed everywhere. They love the attention. But I get the impression that nowadays you practically have to line up and qualify to become a WAG. They’re usually blondes with long hair and would-be models with perfect teeth and perfect bums. When Dennis coached in America during the 1970s and ’80s, he signed a lot of English players and I knew loads of their wives and girlfriends. They were lovely and unpretentious women from ordinary backgrounds. They were great fun to be with. They weren’t supermodels or wannabe anything but themselves.
They were good times?
They were great times!
John Heilpern is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.