Billy Meredith is intimately bound up with the early history of football in Manchester. He inspired both Manchester clubs to their first honours – first City’s FA Cup win in 1904, then United to the league title in 1908 – having scored twice against Newton Heath in 1894, the first of the fixtures that would become the Manchester derby.
He was, by all accounts, a hero to the northern Edwardian working class, who turned out in their thousands to watch him play no matter which side of the city he was representing. Yet he was a controversial figure too: his transfer to United from City was triggered following an allegation (always denied) of bribing an opponent. City refused to oppose the suspension passed down by the FA, and in response he exposed the club’s practice of regularly violating the £4-a-week maximum wage. Meredith, along with three other players, was sold to United at a knock-down price.
A willowy and quick outside-right, Meredith played with a trademark toothpick poking out from under his moustache, having been forced to abandon chewing tobacco following complaints from kit staff. At a time when English football was designed for dribblers, Meredith was the very finest, and the Manchester Guardian eulogised his “consummate ball control and trickery”. He was also, at least during his first spell at City, a prolific scorer, notching 129 goals in 339 games. While the goals dried up somewhat after his move across town, where he played as a more traditional winger, he retained his exceptional technical ability and creative instincts throughout what would be an exceptionally long and fruitful career.
My training is, and always has been, ball practice. You cannot have too much ball practice, and that is one thing I wish the youngsters of today would take to heart. … If you cannot control the ball you are no good.
Meredith made his first-team debut at the age of 18 for Chirk AAA FC, a hotbed of Welsh footballing talent, and played his games against other provincial Welsh teams and the reserves of more established English clubs in the Combination league. Some 31 years later, after almost 1,500 games, he made his last appearance at the grand old age of 49 years and 245 days, in a 2-1 FA Cup semi-final loss to Newcastle. By this time he had returned to City following a clash with United’s management, and throughout his career achievement went hand in hand with antagonism.
As well as the bribery scandal, Meredith was instrumental in the establishment of the AFPTU, the Players’ Union, forerunner of today’s Professional Footballers Association. The Players’ Union had two complementary purposes: the first was to work toward the increase or removal of the maximum wage; the second was to ensure that footballers received adequate protection and compensation in the event of career-ending injury, or that their families were looked after in the event of their death. Meredith was inspired in this second regard by the untimely demise of teammates at both Manchester clubs, and the subsequent abdication of responsibility by the FA. The union was outlawed, and he, along with most of his Manchester United teammates, spent a fair chunk of 1909 on strike; eventually the union was recognised, though the maximum wage was retained.
For Wales, Meredith was selected for 71 consecutive internationals, but release from English clubs was infrequent and grudging, and he only played 48 of those fixtures. As Meredith said, “In those days, Wales was never really sure of a first team and there used to be a sigh of relief when the party trickled up in twos or threes.” Nevertheless, 48 caps was still a record for the time, and all the more impressive given that Wales only played three internationals a year: England, Scotland and Ireland in the Home Championships. Pre-World War One success was minimal, though Meredith did star in Wales’ first ever tournament victory in 1907.
Immediately after the war, Wales played England in an unofficial Victory international in 1919. Playing alongside debutant Fred Keenor, Meredith led the Welsh to a 2-1 win over their imperial oppressors – the first for 37 years – though he was reportedly furious that the game, and so the result, was not recognised as a full international. But it didn’t matter for too long. In 1920, draws with Ireland (away) and Scotland (home) were followed by a 2-1 away win against England at Highbury, and Meredith and Wales’ won their second Home Championship.
Meredith was the first great Welsh professional, and arguably the first footballing superstar. Adored by his crowds, lauded by his team-mates, and loathed by football’s administrators, he appeared in music hall songs and newspaper cartoons as a footballer, agitator and a working-class hero. But where today’s footballers can occasionally appear to be self-aggrandising egoists, Meredith’s concerns about the treatment of players of his generation echoes those of union men of any profession throughout history:
They [the players] are, as a whole, an over-generous careless race who do not heed the morrow or prepare for a rainy day as wise men would. This trait in the character of the players has been taken advantage of over and over again … Many a lad has been tricked into signing on by vague verbal promises deliberately made to be forgotten once the ink was dry on the form. It is only recently that with steady improvement in the class of men playing the game as professionals the players have seen the folly of the careless life and have realised that they have too long put up with indifferences and injustices of many kinds. The only way to alter this state of things was by united action.
We will sadly never know what Meredith – who earned his political spurs guiding pit-ponies in the mines at the age of 12 – would make of the bloated pay packets of modern footballers. But it is beyond doubt that they owe a word of thanks to the belligerence of the moustachioed, pipe-smoking genius; the Welsh Wizard.