BY Vince Cooper
WHEN Billy Meredith made his final appearance he was less than four months short of his 50th birthday. He had won the F.A. Cup with both Manchester clubs, been banned for bribery and suspended for violence, and become football’s first household name.
William Henry Meredith was born in Chirk in Denbighshire in 1874 and at 12 years of age he was working as a pit pony driver in the Black Park coal mine.
He worked in the mines for eight years whilst playing football for local team Chirk with whom he won the Welsh Cup in 1894 beating Westminster Rovers in the final. As well as Chirk, Billy also appeared sporadically for struggling Northwich Victoria.
The Meredith brothers were all keen football fans and elder brother Elias worked for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways giving the brothers the chance to travel and watch matches. Another brother, Sam, also cracked the professional ranks. Two years older than Billy, Sam played at full-back for Stoke City and Leyton and won eight caps for Wales.
Billy’s performances for Chirk and Northwich brought him to the attention of other clubs with Bolton looking set to sign him at one stage before they decided his frame was too slight for top class football. He then came to the attention of the newly-formed Manchester City.
Manchester City had been Ardwick AFC until financial problems caused the club to close down and start again in 1894 and in the same year they signed Meredith. He started out as an amateur and continued working in the mines. He soon became a regular as City competed in the 2nd Division and was chosen to play for Wales for the first time in the 1895 game against Ireland which finished 2-2.
He had made his first City start in a 5-4 loss at Newcastle United and the following week, scored twice on his home debut against Newton Heath, a 5-2 defeat.
Meredith turned professional in 1895 and would finish his first season with 12 goals in 18 games. By the end of his second campaign he was, at the age of just 21, captain and he top-scored with 13 goals as his team finished runners-up. City then missed out on promotion when losing the ‘test match’ series with defeats to West Bromwich Albion and Small Heath.
City, with the toothpick-chewing Meredith at the heart of much of their creative play, continued to push for promotion to the top flight. Finally in 1898-99 the breakthrough came and they raced to the second division crown finishing six points clear of Glossop North End.
The first two seasons in the top flight produced comfortable mid-table finishes for Meredith and his men but the third was a disaster as the team finished bottom of the table, the club’s debts were mounting and at the end of the campaign, manager Sam Ormerod resigned.
Tom Maley took over from Ormerod and led the team straight back up as champions. Until this time City were thought of as something of a ‘one man team’ the general feeling being that if you could stop Meredith you could stop them. But the development of Billie Gillespie and then the arrival of Sandy Turnbull took the pressure off him and he became an even greater force. The combination proved irresistible and the team scored 95 goals in regaining top-flight status.
In 1903-04 Meredith led City to their finest season. With their skipper playing a leading role they came through some tough F.A. Cup games, including beating eventual league champions The Wednesday 3-1 in the semi-final with Meredith scoring the first, to reach their first final where ‘The Welsh Wizard’ scored the only goal to give them the win over Bolton Wanderers.
City came close to achieving the double but three defeats in four games (including a 1-0 loss to The Wednesday) towards the end of the campaign cost them dearly and they fell short by three points.
Having already been refused permission to play for Wales by his club on a number of occasions, Meredith was now performing regularly for country. The international appearances included a fine performance at Cardiff Arms Park in a 1-1 draw with England. Geoffrey Wilson of Corinthians had given the English the lead but Meredith collected the ball, beat two defenders and unleashed an unstoppable shot to level the score.
By this time, the player was being sung about in music halls and feted by fans of his own team and of opponents. But in the last game of the following season it all went wrong.
City travelled to Villa Park on the final day of the 1904-05 season very much in contention for the title. They went down 3-2 a result which pushed them down to third behind champions Newcastle United. There was a fracas on the pitch which led to an F.A. enquiry where Villa’s Alex Leake accused Meredith of offering him £10 to throw the game.
The Welshman vehemently denied the accusation but City, no doubt concerned that they would be implicated, accepted the decision when the F.A. announced that they would be suspending their captain – without pay – for 18 months.
Meredith’s response was to blow the whistle on the club who had ‘thrown him to the wolves’, accusing them of illegally paying their players more than the £4 minimum wage. The F.A investigated the claims and fined City the massive sum of £900.
There was no chance of City and Meredith burying the hatchet and, as with the club ordered by the league to sell all of their players he was snapped up in May 1906 whilst still serving his suspension, along with Turnbull, Jimmy Bannister and Herbert Burgess others, by Manchester United.
Meredith received a £500 signing-on fee from his new club after City had agreed to give him a free transfer in return for him foregoing a previously-agreed benefit match.
United were newly promoted to the first division and the new arrivals would ensure that they had little difficulty in adjusting to life in the top flight and in the 1906-07 season, without the still-suspended United men for the first half of the campaign they finished in 8th.
The following season the team romped to the First Division title finishing nine points clear of Aston Villa and added the Charity Shield, seeing off Queen’s Park Rangers 4-0 in a replay after the first game had been drawn 1-1.
As well as being a major player as United brought the crown home to Bank Street, Meredith was also active off the pitch playing a leading role in the creation of the first Association Football Players Union and chairing its first meeting. The F.A. refused to recognise the Union and issued a direct threat to players; resign from the union or have your registration cancelled. Most players from all clubs excluding those from United hurriedly left.
The United team were left out in the cold and trained away from the club, calling themselves ‘Outcasts XI’. A compromise was reached but not before the Welsh Wizard accused those who had deserted the union of being; ‘content to live a kind of schoolboy life and to just do what they are told’.
The 1908-09 season was a poor one, league-wise, for United and Meredith was suspended in January for kicking an opponent in the F.A. Cup match with Brighton. But they continued to progress in the competition and would end up securing the trophy with a 1-0 victory over Bristol City at the Crystal Palace in their first-ever final. Sandy Turnbull got the winner but Meredith was a unanimous choice as Man of the Match.
United might be considered slightly lucky winners. In the quarter-final they were a goal down to Burnley with 72 minutes played when the referee abandoned the match due to poor weather conditions. When it was replayed five days later the men from Manchester won 3-2.
Meredith’s team had a poor season in 1909-10 although the club still had much to celebrate with the opening of Old Trafford. And by the end of the following term the team were challenging for honours again.
On the final day of the 1910-11 season United needed to beat third-placed Sunderland and hope that leaders Aston Villa failed to win against Liverpool to stop champions Villa from repeating.
United went a goal down but hit back to win 5-1 and Liverpool helped Meredith and his men secure the title with a 3-1 win over Villa.
Near the start of the 1911-12 season United again won the Charity Shield, beating Swindon Town 8-4 with Harold Halse scoring six times but it proved disappointing in the other major competitions and manager Ernest Mangnall would leave in the summer of 1912 for Manchester City.
Meredith had a benefit match in 1912, against Manchester City and he also received the proceeds of two Wales trial matches boosting the total he made to around £1,400 although he had problems getting the money from United and spent much of the following year arguing with the club.
During the 1st World War he was still in dispute with the club and made guest appearances fo Manchester City and Port Vale (against United) among others. When football resumed Meredith requested a free transfer from Old Trafford but the club insisted they would only let him leave for a fee.
United finally relented in 1921 when, at the age of 46 they granted him a free transfer. He immediately returned to City and went on to play in the club’s last match at their old Hyde Road ground. He continued with the club until 1924 when, aged 49 years and 235 days he brought the curtain down on a 30-year career in a match against Newcastle United. This gave him the record of being the oldest player to play for Manchester City having also been the oldest player to appear for United when he was aged 46 years and 281 days at the time of his last match.
His 48th and last cap for Wales came in 1920 when, aged 45, he helped them to a 2-1 win over England at Highbury (their first over their neighbours for 38 years) that secured the Home International title. He was actually picked for his country 71 times in succession but on 23 occasions he was denied permission to play by his club.
Meredith had a number of business interests – mostly unsuccessful – during his career including running a pub, despite being a teetotaller. He played himself in the 1926 film ‘The Ball Of Fortune’ and later ran the Stretford Hotel in Manchester. He died in 1958 aged 83.
The ‘Prince of Wingers’ had it all; he was quick, had fabulous ball control and the ability to beat defenders on the inside or outside (although he felt the outside was they way to go, saying; ‘it’s my job to beat the defender, get to the byline and get it over’). He was tough and could take knocks – as well as being prepared to give them out and he had a fearsome long range shot.
It’s highly unlikely that another player will ever play over 300 times for both Manchester clubs, and win major trophies with them. But then again, it’s also highly unlikely that there’ll ever be another Billy Meredith.