In his second year at secondary school Manchester United’s local scout spotted Dennis and recognising that the young kid had talent in abundance, he recommended him to his manager, Matt Busby. United had the best, and most coveted youth football system in English football and regardless of the city or town of their birth, every schoolboy dreamt of becoming a Busby Babe and following in the football boots of the legendary Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton and many others. Dennis was recruited by United and aged only 15, he left school and signed for the club as a trainee in September 1960. His boyhood dream was fulfilled, he became a Busby Babe, the first and only black Busby Babe.
Dennis was an outstanding talent at schoolboys level and was on the verge of playing for the England schoolboys Under-15 side before agreeing terms at Old Trafford. When Jimmy Murphy, assistant manager to Matt Busby, and the man in charge of Manchester United’s Youth Teams, knocked on the front door of the home of the parent/parents of a young boy who he wanted to join his set-up at Old Trafford, it was perhaps one of the most difficult things in the world to do and not invite Jimmy in. Murphy was Busby’s most trusted lieutenant, his Consigliere when it came to getting a deal done and acquire the signature of a promising young footballer. But more than this, Murphy was a genial Welshman, whose demeanour was so intoxicating, and whose words of comfort and wisdom were so reassuring, that it may have been bordering on a parent committing a sin to refuse him permission to look after their son. Jimmy never promised to take the place of either parent in their son’s life but what he did give them was his unequivocal guarantee that he would look after him like he was his own son. Busby knew that Murphy was the Patriarch of his Babes and both treated the young boys under their charge as men. Mary Walker, just like the parents of Edwards and Charlton had done in previous years, placed her trust in Manchester United, and in Jimmy in particular, to look after her son and help him become a man. Had Dennis been selected to play for the England schoolboys Under-15 side, he would have been the first black player to represent England at any level. However, he became ineligible for a call-up as he had signed terms for Manchester United.
A right-sided midfielder or forward, Dennis signed as a full-time professional in November 1961 but had to wait until the end of the 1962-63 season before making his first-team debut. On 20 May 1963, Busby gave Dennis his first team debut and selected him in his team which lost 3-2 at the City Ground, Nottingham to Nottingham Forest in the English First Division Championship (scorers: Johnny Giles & David Herd). Amazingly, neither Charlton or Denis Law (Best was still a Youth Team player) played in the game which was not only Dennis’s first for Manchester United, but also his only ever game for the club. Busby rested Charlton and played Dennis in his position, making him the first black player to play in a competitive game for Manchester United. Walker’s debut was Manchester United’s final League game of the 1962-63 season, and five days later, Charlton and Law both played in United’s 3-1 win over Leicester City in the 1963 FA Cup final (Best was sitting in the stands at Wembley Stadium watching the game, still only a trainee at Old Trafford). Law scored in the final as did David Herd who scored twice for United under the Twin Towers to win the FA Cup for the third time in the history of the club, winners in 1909 & 1948.
After making the breakthrough into the Manchester United first team, Dennis remained on the periphery of the first team and when the club embarked on a 1963-64 pre-season tour of Italy, he was not chosen by Busby for any of the matches. But then again, his competition was Charlton and Law and a Manchester United Legend awaiting, literally in the wings, the iconic, devilish, wizard of the dribble, silky, stylish, mesmeric, iconic, genius of world football, George Best. The 17-year old George Best eventually made his first team debut on 14 September 1963. In April 1964, Dennis left Old Trafford and moved to York City who had just finished third from bottom of the English Fourth Division and had to apply for re-election to the League, which was approved. On 13 June 1964, Dennis married Patricia Cropper in the Parish Church of St Clement, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, and his former Manchester United teammate, David Sadler (George Best’s best friend at the club), was his best man at his wedding. After 169 appearances for York City he moved to Cambridge United in 1968 and played for the club in the Southern League and then in the Football League from 1968 until October 1972. In October 1972, he moved to Poole Town Football Club for £1,600, making 74 League appearances for the club and scoring 4 goals. Poole Town were relegated from the Southern Premier League to the Southern League Division 1 South at the end of the 1972-73 season, and at the start of the 1973-74 season, Dennis was made player/manager. In July 1975, he accepted an offer of a football coaching role in South Africa.
He then returned to the UK to become the Operations Manager at the Arndale Shopping Centre in Manchester. Dennis was on duty on 15 June 1996, when a telephone call came through claiming that a bomb had been planted in the Arndale Shopping Centre. The Troubles were in their 27th year in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had carried out many bombing campaigns in England during this time. However, hoax calls about bombs being planted at key points in English cities were not uncommon at this time, and any decision to evacuate a major shopping complex or a financial institution would undoubtedly cause a great deal of disruption and financial loss. Thankfully, Dennis decided he would go with the gut feeling he had following the telephone warning and supported the decision to evacuate the Arndale Shopping Centre which was packed with shoppers. Seconds after ensuring everyone was safe a 3,300-pound IRA bomb was detonated, hurling Dennis across the road and into the window of Debenhams Department Store. Miraculously he was unhurt, and no one died in the aftermath of the explosion, mainly thanks to Dennis’s quick decision making.
Sadly, Dennis suffered a massive stroke and lost the use of the right side of his body. This was difficult for Dennis to endure as he was such a positive outgoing person who loved playing sports, particularly golf. He never fully recovered from the stroke passed away on 11 August 2003, in Stepping Hill Hospital, Stockport aged 59.
But Dennis’s legacy lives on and thanks to him, the Manchester United team today is a diverse one. Dennis Walker paved the way for those players today to represent the club freely and without the prejudice players like Dennis had to suffer and tolerate during the 1960s and 1970s in order to play the sport they loved.
He was the first black player to play for Manchester United and the only black Busby Babe.
Remi Moses, Manchester United 1981-88, was the first black player to score for Manchester United. On 21 October 1981, United beat Middlesbrough 1-0 at Old Trafford in the English First Division Championship with Moses scoring the only goal of the game in the 82nd minute.
Did You Know That?
Consigliere is a position within the leadership structure of the Calabrian, Sicilian and American Mafia. The word was popularised in English in the 1969 novel, The Godfather, and in the 1972 movie of the same name. In the novel a consigliere is an advisor or counsellor to the Boss, who also represents the Boss and his family in important meetings both within the Boss's own crime family and with other crime families. The consigliere is a close, trusted friend and confidant, the Mafia's version of an elder statesman, a “right-hand man.” Jimmy Murphy was undoubtedly the equivalent of a Consigliere to Matt Busby who himself has been referred to as the Father of Manchester United.