The Black Busby babe who made history for United – and survived the IRA bomb

Dennis Walker: The first, and only, black Busby Babe (Image: Cambridge United)
Dennis Walker: The first, and only, black Busby Babe (Image: Cambridge United)
Schooled at Old Trafford, married in Chorlton - and very nearly killed in the Arndale

Today the sight of black footballers representing England and playing throughout the British leagues is nothing at all unusual.

Marcus Rashford, Andy Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Ince and Viv Anderson are among those to make history at Man United.

However, before any of them played in the famous red strip, it was one Dennis Walker who led the way for black players at the club.

Dennis Allen Walker was born on October 26, 1944 in Queen Street, Northwich, the small town between Crewe and Warrington in Cheshire.

Dennis Walker: The first, and only, black Busby Babe (Image: Cambridge United)
Dennis Walker: The first, and only, black Busby Babe (Image: Cambridge United)

Like many in the region, Dennis’ mother Mary Walker was an Irish immigrant who originally came from Limerick.

She was a single mother, and would later tell her son that his father had died at sea, possibly during World War II, when Dennis was just an infant.

Very little was ever known about Dennis’ dad, who wasn’t named on his birth certificate.

Dennis always described his father as being of mixed Iranian and Argentinian heritage but Dennis’ daughter Nadine Ali later discovered, through DNA tests, that he was actually of African and Iranian heritage.

Just as many enslaved Africans were taken to the Caribbean and the United States, others were moved to the Persian Gulf, where slavery was still legal until 1929.

Though Dennis had no relationship with his father, it is thought that he continued, in some way, to communicate with relatives in Iran.

He spoke fluent Farsi and Arabic as a child, something he presumably didn’t pick up in Northwich.

It was in 1956 when, at 12-years-old, Dennis was picked up by Manchester United scouts and brought into their youth set-up.

Within two years the Red Devils were hit by the worst disaster to strike a professional football team in British history.

The Munich Air Disaster of February 1958 saw seven first team United players die, an event that decimated a team that had dominated the English game for years.

In reaction to the disaster, Sir Matt Busby, United’s legendary manager and a big believer in youth development, began developing a second generation of homegrown players to play for the team.

Dennis Walker was the only black Busby Babe, so named by legendary United manager Sir Matt Busby
Dennis Walker was the only black Busby Babe, so named by legendary United manager Sir Matt Busby

Dennis had left school at 15 to become a full-time professional footballer in November, 1961.

He was now part of the second generation of Busby Babes that were going to take the club forward, training and working alongside the likes of Bobby Charlton, Johnny Giles, Nobby Stiles and David Herd.

Dennis was such a good player that he was close to being selected by the England schoolboys under-15 team, which would have made him the first black player to represent the Three Lions at any level.

However the teenager wasn’t eligible as he had already signed professional terms with Manchester United at the time, another sure sign of his footballing talent.

Dennis remained at the club for three years, in which time the Red Devils won just a single major honour in the 1963 F.A Cup.

Dennis actually made his debut just days before the F.A Cup at Wembley.

Matt Busby, eager to rest his first team players for the fixture, picked Dennis in the starting line-up against Nottingham Forest for United’s final game of the 1962-1963 season.

On May 21, Dennis lined up alongside Giles and Herd, ready to face a talented Nottingham Forest side. On that day he became the first, and only, black Busby Babe.

The Red Devils lost 3-2 to Tricky Trees, having gone ahead twice through Giles and Herd.

Dennis Walker played on the left flank for United that day but didn’t seem to make an impression, all the match reviews focussed on the performances of Herd and Pat Crerand.

Dennis was picked for a pre-season tour of Italy in the summer of 1963, with United fresh off the back of their F.A Cup triumph.

But he never made an appearance for Manchester United again.

The likes of Bobby Charlton, Bobby Charlton, and a young, talented, Northern Irish winger by the name of George Best were keeping him out of the team.

In April 1964 Dennis was released before joining York City, then Third Division minnows.

Though he had only enjoyed a single appearance at United the club had obviously had an affect on Dennis.

He married his first wife Patricia Cropper at the Parish Church of St Clement in Chorlton, on June 13, 1964, two months after joining the Minstermen. Manchester United defender David Sadler was his best man.

Dennis was also joined at York by two other United alumni, John Pearson and Eamon Dunphy, who joined the season after Dennis made his move.

Dennis would stay at York until 1968, making 154 appearances and netting 19 times.

He then joined Cambridge United, dropping down to play in tier seven of the football league.

In joining the Southern League team, Dennis made history once again, becoming the first black man to don the Cambridge United jersey.

He enjoyed what was arguably the most successful spell of his career at Cambridge, helping them win the Southern League title and Southern League Cup.

Dennis Walker training at Cambridge United (Image: Cambridge United)
Dennis Walker training at Cambridge United (Image: Cambridge United)

The side were elected to play in the Football League, for the first in their history, in 1970, when Dennis served as club captain.

He made 202 appearances for them, scoring 23 goals during his four-year tenure.

In 1972, Dennis moved to Poole Town, where he was paid £1,600 or making 74 appearances.

The club were relegated from the Southern League at the end of the 1973 season and Dennis was appointed player/manager, a role he remained in until the end of the 1975 season.

In July of that year, Dennis was offered a coaching role out in South Africa, which he duly accepted.

His management spell in Africa proved to be unsuccessful and Dennis returned to the UK where he worked at Gran Moda, a clothing retail company in Bournemouth.

According to those who worked alongside him, Dennis still played football, although only at Sunday League level.

Before the 1970s was out, Dennis had returned up North and eventually ended up in Manchester, working as an operations manager at the Arndale shopping centre.

Obviously the city of Manchester still held a special place in Dennis’ heart.

Dennis was actually on duty at the time of the 1996 Manchester bombing, when he supported the decision to evacuate the building after receiving a warning about the planting of the bomb.

The former footballer was actually flung across the road, hitting the window of a Debenhams, following the blast. He was thankfully unhurt.

He died at Stepping Hill Hospital in 2003, having suffered a major stroke. He was just 58.