In celebration of Billy Meredith, the maverick who straddled the Manchester divide

In celebration of Billy Meredith, the maverick who straddled the Manchester divide

RYAN GIGGS IS CONSIDERED ONE OF THE GREATEST PLAYERS in Manchester United’s history, collecting 34 major honours with the team he joined as a teenager. No player in the club’s history has made more appearances than Giggs, and the Welshman was potentially just one season away from breaking the thousand game barrier for United. He was often referred to as the Welsh Wizard due to the jinking runs and dazzling wing play which characterised his first decade in a red shirt. 

However, a century earlier, another player with similar attributes carried that same sobriquet. This player left an indelible mark on the club’s history in his own right for what he did off the field as much as for what he achieved on it.

William Henry Meredith, more commonly known as Billy, was born in July 1874 in Chirk, where the River Ceiriog forms a natural border between England and Wales. Growing up in a Welsh mining village, it was inevitable into which field Meredith would fall; working in this harsh industry would help shape the strong political views for which he became famous.

Football was a popular distraction for the miners, and it would soon become a passion for Billy, as well as his brother who represented Stoke City and Wales. Meredith made his debut for Chirk Amateur Athletic Association Football Club – a team consisting primarily of miners – as an 18-year-old, helping the club to the Welsh Cup in 1894, their fifth in eight years.

Whilst playing for Chirk, Meredith also represented English club Northwich Victoria, and it was this association that would earn him his first big break. Whilst playing for the Vics, Meredith caught the eye of a referee who also happened to be an official with Ardwick AFC, the club that would later become known as Manchester City. Meredith initially signed for City as an amateur, spending the first year continuing to work in the mines whilst commuting between Chirk and Manchester.

In November 1894 Meredith appeared in the first ever Manchester derby league match, as City were defeated 5-2 by Newton Heath (later Manchester United). From there his progress was rapid, and in only his second season he was named club captain despite his tender age of 21. With Meredith scoring goals and proving a key component of the side, City won the Second Division in 1898/99. In their third season in the top flight, the club were relegated but bounced back as champions at the first time of asking. Meredith then captained them to FA Cup glory in 1904, with his career on the up, although the proverbial fall was soon to follow the pride.

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Going into the last game of the 1904/05 season, City were still in the race for the Division One championship. Old Skinny – another of Meredith’s nicknames, due to his gangly frame – was alleged to have offered Aston Villa’s Alex Leake £10 to throw the game in an attempt to enhance City’s chances of sealing the title. However, Leake reported Meredith to the Football Association who duly suspended him for 18 months, putting a halt to what was becoming a promising and increasingly trophy-laden career. City lost the match 3-2, subsequently failing to win the championship, and to his dying day, Meredith protested his innocence. 

The scandal and resulting ban soured the relationship between Meredith and his employers. City refused to pay his wages, and in retaliation the fiery Welshman blew the whistle on the club’s ploy of paying players over the maximum £4 per week wage, as well as suggesting that if he had indeed attempted to bribe Leake, it would only have been on his manager’s orders and part of a common practice at the club. It transpired that City were actually paying up to £7, and 18 players were prohibited from playing for the club ever again.

The enterprising United manager Ernest Mangnall was looking to strengthen his squad having just guided them to promotion. Taking advantage of the chaos across town, Mangnall signed four of City’s best players, including Billy Meredith and star striker Sandy Turnbull. Crossing the Manchester divide was less of a taboo in 1906 as it has perhaps since become, and as his position at City became untenable, Meredith swapped the blue for the red of United after 12 years and over 300 appearances for the Citizens

His debut came on New Year’s Day 1907, ironically against the opponents at the heart of the match-fixing controversy, Aston Villa. Meredith dazzled, displaying the wing wizardry that would become part of his legend, setting up Turnbull for what would prove to be the only goal of the game.

In his first full season at the club, 1907/08, Meredith helped United capture the Division One title for the first time in their history. The side romped to the championship, finishing an astonishing nine points clear in an era when it was only two points for a victory. Playing wide on the right in an adventurous 2-3-5 formation which was typical of the day, Meredith contributed 10 goals as well as numerous assists with his trickery and pinpoint crossing. Eccentrically playing with a toothpick in his mouth, Meredith made 41 appearances in all competitions, more than any other player, underlining his influence on the team.

United failed to retain their title in 1908/09, finishing a disappointing 13th place in the league, although a  Turnbull goal in the FA Cup final cushioned the blow as the Red Devils beat Bristol City 1-0 to claim the trophy. Meredith courted further controversy during this season, missing most of January due to a suspension after he had kicked a Brighton player en route to the final. Bizarrely, although Meredith played 38 games across all competitions, he failed to score a single goal all season.

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In the summer of 1909, Meredith was back in the news for his off-field actions as opposed to what he was doing with a ball at his feet. Two years earlier, as United had been setting a ferocious pace in their championship-winning season, Meredith chaired a meeting at Manchester’s Imperial Hotel. Five hundred footballers gathered to discuss forming a union, with the abolition of the maximum £4 weekly wage at the top of the agenda. The feeling was that as the attendances were rising and club owners were getting richer, the stars of the show weren’t being sufficiently remunerated. The new organisation was named the Association Football Players’ Union, the precursor to today’s Professional Football Association (PFA).

The Football League put pressure on club owners, who relented and abandoned their support for the nascent union. Players were encouraged to either resign from the union or face having their registrations cancelled. The majority of members did indeed resign, although the whole of the Manchester United squad remained steadfast in their convictions.

The suspended players trained alone locally, giving themselves the nickname ‘Outcasts FC’. “The unfortunate thing is that so many players refuse to take things seriously but are content to live a kind of schoolboy life and to do just what they are told,” remarked a frustrated Meredith at the time. The suspension was lifted when a compromise was reached after the Outcasts garnered support from colleagues at several prominent northern clubs.

With the rebels back in the fold in time for the new season, United finished fifth in 1909/10, a campaign which saw the inauguration of Old Trafford with a February defeat to Liverpool. The 1910/11 season saw United reclaim the league championship, the second in their history, edging Aston Villa by a point.

The following two seasons were mediocre, and Meredith’s once great influence on the team began to wane. This coincided with the souring of his relationship with the club hierarchy, with the player complaining about being dropped and also about late payments following a benefit match. The rebellious and polemic former miner was once again courting controversy.

The club’s decline, hastened by the defection of manager Mangnall to Manchester City in August 1912, was stark, and in 1914/15 United only managed to avoid relegation on the last day of the season. The First World War interrupted the English football calendar for four years, and upon resumption in 1919, United’s mediocrity continued. The majority of the players from the successful era left as Old Trafford became an albatross around the club’s neck. With no games to fund the upkeep of the stadium, players were sold to the highest bidder.

After just three goals in 35 games in the two seasons following the war, Meredith left the club in 1921. In the process, he became the oldest player to take to the field for United, at the staggering age of 46 years and 281 days. Meredith made a total of 335 appearances for United in all competitions, scoring 36 goals in the process. He was part of the teams that won the club’s first two league championships at the top level of English football, and the first of its FA Cups.

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Following his departure from Old Trafford, Meredith returned to the blue side of Manchester and enjoyed something of an Indian summer, appearing in 25 of City’s 42 league games during the 1921/22 season. Ironically, as City finished comfortably in 10th, United were relegated, the culmination of a decade-long decline. 

Meredith was used sporadically over the course of the next two seasons, and in March 1924 he played his last ever game as a professional as City lost in the FA Cup semi-final to Newcastle at Birmingham’s St Andrew’s stadium. He set another record that day, becoming the oldest player to represent Manchester City, aged 49 years and 245 days.

Meredith represented his country 48 times in an international career which spanned 25 years and gleaned 11 goals, helping Wales to victory in the British Home Championships of 1907 and 1920. The oldest player to ever represent Wales, Meredith surely would have won more caps had he been released for international duty on a more regular basis.

Meredith died in April 1958, two months after the Munich Air Disaster shook the city of Manchester. He spent years in an unmarked grave before the PFA, Welsh FA, and both Manchester clubs came together to honour him with a proper headstone at Southern Cemetery, the largest municipal resting place of its kind in the United Kingdom.

Meredith was finally inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2007, and is also in the Hall of Fame at the City of Manchester Stadium. His impact on English football cannot be understated. During the first two decades of the 20th century, he was one of Britain’s most famous men, winning two league titles and two FA Cups with the Manchester clubs while displaying exhilarating wing play that would become a trademark, particularly on the red side of the city.

Showing his longevity, and what would be a superb pub quiz question, he holds the records for oldest appearance maker for both Manchester clubs as well as Wales. Although he lost 18 months of his career to a lengthy suspension, and four years due to the war, Meredith still managed 750 senior appearances throughout his career.

Despite his prowess on the field, perhaps his biggest contribution to football came off the field. His mining roots forged a steel within him and honed his political mind, leading him to become instrumental in fighting for the rights of his fellow professional footballers. Setting up the first players’ union, the refusal of Meredith and his fellow United players to bend under the pressure from the Football League led them to be painted as outcasts in 1909. Without this dedication to the struggle, today’s players may not have been able to enjoy the privileges they are undoubtedly blessed with.

Meredith was certainly no angel, serving bans for violence and alleged bribery during his career, but he is without doubt one of football’s most colourful and important characters and deserves to be remembered as such.

By Dan Williamson

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