Billy Meredith: The scandal-hit activist who changed football forever

Words By Stephen Tudor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 29, 2018

Ninety-four years ago today Billy Meredith made his last professional appearance in a Manchester City shirt. He was 49 years and 245 days old, the same age, give or take a month, as Paul Merson, Matt le Tissier and Paul Ince are now. He retired disgraced, forgiven, never less than extraordinary, and having completely changed the blueprint of Britain’s sporting life. He retired as football’s first bona fide superstar.

Meredith’s long life began in the most humble of circumstance and ended in an unmarked grave. In between was a rich, rare, and fascinating existence made up of contradictions – a teetotaller who ran a pub; a highly principled man of Methodist stock who succumbed to bribery; and a player who always had the best interests of his colleagues at heart yet endured bans for violence against them (in an era when attempted decapitation would lead to a mere ticking off). There are a thousand words that could accurately describe the life and times of William Henry Meredith but ultimately one trumps all others. He was incomparable.

“Oh I wish I was you Billy Meredith, I wish I was you. I envy you, indeed I do”. This sentiment in song would chime out around Hyde Road as the wizard of the dribble jinxed and danced down the wing chewing on a trademark toothpick for concentration. In the centre always awaited Sandy Turnbull – another giant of the pre-war game who, like Meredith, would go on to play for both Manchester clubs – and the combination of this duo, along with a supporting cast of brilliant Franks and Georges and Tommys led City to a FA Cup triumph and strong contention for a first league title. But we’re already getting ahead of ourselves because that places us in 1905 and by that point the moustachioed Welshman was in his tenth season with the Blues. Previously he’d been plucked from Northwich Victoria joining the club in the same year they changed their name from Ardwick to Manchester City and in his second season he was promoted to team captain aged just 21. His supernatural ability with the ball at his feet not only hauled his side to two promotions but led many to belittle City as being a one man team with the general strategy of opposition managers being that if you stopped him you stopped them. Slender but granite tough rarely was he ever stopped.

By 1905 Billy Meredith was as famous as the biggest music hall stars of the day.

Only then came Aston Villa in the season’s climax with a title on the line. A fracas on the pitch led to a FA enquiry that unearthed accusations that Villa captain Alex Leake had been offered ten pounds by Meredith to throw the game. With the proposition spurned Meredith was instead thrown to the wolves and as his employers panicked at the scandal’s ferocity they accepted the authorities’ decision to suspend their star for eighteen months and furthermore refused to pay him for the entire duration.

Feeling scapegoated and isolated Meredith turned whistle-blower claiming that it was common practice for his club to illegally pay their players well over the maximum allowed wage of £4 a week. Additionally he wanted it known that, though he absolutely contested the allegations, let’s just say that in an imaginary world where he had tried to bribe the Villa skipper it would have been via the direct instruction of City manager Tom Maley.

It should be noted here that no actual evidence was ever put forward concerning the alleged bribe. It was always Leake’s word against Meredith’s.

As for the outside forward’s secondary claims the FA duly investigated and fined City £900 leading to an in-house implosion of suspensions and ill-feeling.

Sensing a unique opportunity to capitalise Manchester United’s manager Ernest Mangnell swooped, signing four of their neighbour’s best and most disillusioned players; a quartet that included Turnbull and Meredith.

The history, legacy, identity, and fortune of the world’s most recognised footballing name. They all stem from this moment.

At United ‘s Bank Street ground Meredith’s fame mushroomed further still as leagues were won and the FA Cup was brought back to Manchester in 1908 and as his legend grew so too did his social conscience, perhaps ignited by the injustices that had befallen him. Always an outspoken critic of the maximum wage in 1907 he was instrumental in the forming of the Player’s Union that rebelled against the financial restrictions placed upon his profession.

“I have devoted myself to football and I have become a better player than most men because I have denied myself much that men prize,” he argued. “They congratulate me and give me caps but they will not give me a penny more than men are earning in the reserve team, some of them perhaps do not trouble to improve themselves”.

The cause only intensified in scope and legitimacy and eventually all hell broke loose as the FA point-blank refused to acknowledge the union’s existence and additionally put immense pressure on clubs to do likewise. All but United did, remaining steadfast in their support of their players’ right to earn a fair share as attendances rose and income poured into the game.

The FA’s response to this was to simply suspend every Manchester United player forcing them to train alone and bond under a self-styled nickname of ‘Outcasts FC’.

In time a compromise was reached, as is so often the way, but prior to an agreement being brokered Meredith’s scabrous description of colleagues who had backed down was revealing. He called them ‘schoolboys’.

He’d never been one you see. Not really. At the age of just 12 he was working down the mines, driving a pit pony into the dangerous depths of the earth. For eight years he was subjected to the atrocious conditions of the Black Park Colliery in Chirk, Denbighshire and it was here that a strong sense of community was instilled into him along with religious ideals forged and a work ethic that never wavered.

It was a tough upbringing and his signing for Manchester City illustrates this, with legend having it that when two representatives of the club arrived in the small town to seek out his signature they were strong-armed into buying a pint for everyone before he was brought to them. His mother meanwhile made no secret of her disdain for football deeming it an ‘innocent amusement’; a distraction that lured people down from the big cities to steal her boys away. (Meredith’s older brother was also a professional footballer who plied his trade at Stoke).

When peace broke out across Europe from a cruel, destructive war Billy Meredith was a player approaching his mid-forties and naturally no longer the formidable force he once was. With a great deal of reluctance United granted him a free transfer and he returned to Hyde Road where he made ever more sporadic appearances before retiring at a venerable and celebrated age.

He died a great many years later, aged 83, and was buried at his own insistence in an unmarked grave in south Manchester. A hero to the Edwardian working class. A pioneer and activist. A stonewall legend. One of us at the end.

Among the tributes that poured in when several years’ later football learned of his humble departure and placed a headstone at his rest came from the curator of Manchester United’s museum. He said Meredith was a man who ‘knew his own worth’. This is true. He did. And not with any shred of arrogance but merely as a barometer to gauge what was right and what was wrong. Or rather what was his right and when it was wrong for others to deny him that.

A man who knew his own worth who insisted on an unmarked grave. That was Billy Meredith. Contradictory to the last.

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