Billy Meredith

Billy Meredith

William (Billy) Meredith was born in Black Park, Wales on 28th July 1874. He worked as a coal-miner and played local football for Chirk. At the age of 18 he signed as an amateur with Northwich Victoria.

An extremely talented outside right he joined Manchester City in 1894. The following year he won his first international cap for Wales. However, he continued to work underground during the week until 1896, when his club finally insisted that he give up his colliery job.

The fans loved the skills of Meredith and was dubbed the "Welsh Wizard" by his admirers. In the 1898-99 season Billy Meredith helped Manchester City win promotion to the First Division of the Football League. He scored four hat-tricks and ended up the season with 29 goals. Billy Gillespie was also prolific that season and added 17 to the 18 he scored the previous season.

Manchester City did not find it easy in its first season in the top division and finished in eighth place. The following season was even worse and the club finished eleventh. Joe Cassidy was top scorer with 14 goals but he was sold to Middlesbrough at the end of the season for £75 on the grounds he was not worth his £4 a week wages. The manager, Sam Ormerod, complained about this decision but it was now clear that the directors of the club had lost confidence in him and he was no longer making the key decisions.

In the 1901-02 season Manchester City was relegated. Sam Ormerod resigned and was replaced by Tom Maley, the former Preston North End player. In a pre-season public practice game, Di Jones, who played with Billy Meredith in the Welsh national team, gashed his knee. Despite treatment from the club doctor, within a week the wound had turned septic and the player died.

Tom Maley decided to build a team around his star players, Billy Gillespie and Billy Meredith. This included players such as Billy Jones, Herbert Burgess, Sandy Turnbull, Irvine Thornley, and Jimmy Bannister. That season Manchester City won the Second Division championship by scoring 95 goals in 34 games. The top marksmen were Gillespie (30), Meredith (23), Turnbull (12) and Bannister (12).

Billy Meredith races past two Bolton Wanderers defenders in the 1904 FA Cup Final.
Billy Meredith races past two Bolton Wanderers defenders in the 1904 FA Cup Final.

In the 1903-04 season Manchester City finished in second place in the First Division. They also had a good FA Cup run defeating Sunderland (3-2), Arsenal (2-0), Middlesbrough (3-1) and Sheffield Wednesday (3-0). Manchester City played Bolton Wanderers in the final at Crystal Palace. The only goal of the game was scored by Billy Meredith.

The Football Association was amazed by Manchester City's rapid improvement and that summer they decided to carry out an investigation into the way the club was being run. However, the officials only discovered some minor irregularities and no case was brought against the club.

The Daily Graphic (25th April, 1904)
The Daily Graphic (25th April, 1904)

The following season Manchester City again challenged for the championship. City needed to beat Aston Villa on the final day of the season. Sandy Turnbull gave Alex Leake, the Villa captain, a torrid time during the game. Leake threw some mud at him and he responded with a two-fingered gesture. Leake then punched Turnbull. According to some journalists, at the end of the game, Turnbull was dragged into the Villa dressing-room and beaten-up. Villa won the game 3-1 and Manchester City finished third, two points behind Newcastle United.

After the game Alex Leake claimed that Billy Meredith had offered him £10 to throw the game. Meredith was found guilty of this offence by the Football Association and was fined and suspended from playing football for a year. Manchester City refused to provide financial help for Meredith and so he decided to go public about what really was going on at the club: "What was the secret of the success of the Manchester City team? In my opinion, the fact that the club put aside the rule that no player should receive more than four pounds a week... The team delivered the goods, the club paid for the goods delivered and both sides were satisfied."

The Football Association was now forced to carry out another investigation into the financial activities of Manchester City. They discovered that City had been making additional payments to all their players. Tom Maley was suspended from football for life. Seventeen players were fined and suspended until January 1907.

Manchester City was also forced to sell their players and at an auction at the Queen's Hotel in Manchester. The Manchester United manager, Ernest Mangnal signed Billy Meredith for only £500. While at City he scored 145 goals in 338 games. Mangnal also purchased three other talented members of the City side, Herbert Burgess, Sandy Turnbull and Jimmy Bannister.

In 1906 John Henry Davies, the chairman of Manchester United, provided the funds for Billy Meredith to set up a sports-equipment shop in St Peter's Square, Manchester.

These new players did not make their debuts until the 1st January 1907. Manchester United beat Aston Villa 1-0. The only goal of the game was scored by Sandy Turnbull from a Billy Meredith cross. United only lost four games during the remainder of the season and climbed to an eighth-place finish. Meredith managed to score five goals in 16 games that season.

The Welsh team that played against England on 18th March, 1901. Leigh Rooseis wearing the goalkeeper's jersey. The captain, Billy Meredith is holding the ball.
The Welsh team that played against England on 18th March, 1901. Leigh Roose
is wearing the goalkeeper's jersey. The captain, Billy Meredith is holding the ball.

In 1907 the Welsh team beat Ireland (3-2) and Scotland (1-0). They clinched their first Home Nations Championship with a 1-1 draw with England. Meredith and the goalkeeper Leigh Roose, were outstanding in these games. This was a fantastic achievement as in none of the three games had Wales managed to field the side originally selected. The main reason for this was that Football League clubs often refused to allow Welsh players to represent their country in international fixtures. As Meredith pointed out: "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. Reserves were usually standing by, but a reserve goalkeeper was not thought of when Dick (Leigh) Roose was holding down the position."

Manchester United started off the 1907-08 season with three straight wins. They were then beaten 2-1 by Middlesbrough. However, this was followed by another ten wins and United quickly built up a good advantage over the rest of the First Division. Although Liverpool beat them 7-4 on 25th March, 1908, Manchester United went on to win the title by nine points. Meredith scored 10 goals that season. However, he made many more for other forwards such as Sandy Turnbull (25) and George Wall (19).

The following season Manchester United enjoyed a good run in the FA Cup. They beat Brighton & Hove Albion (1-0), Everton (1-0), Blackburn Rovers (6-1), Burnley (3-2) and Newcastle United (1-0) to reach the final. Newcastle, who went onto win the league that season, was obviously disappointed by being prevented from winning the double. However, the whole of the Newcastle team waited for 15 minutes in torrential rain aboard an open coach so they could applaud their conquerors after the game.

Jimmy Turnbull (5), Harold Halse (4) and Sandy Turnbull (3) got the goals during the successful cup run that got them to the final at Crystal Palace against Bristol City. The game was disappointing and Sandy Turnbull scored the only goal in the 22nd minute.

Billy Meredith was always concerned about the way clubs treated their players. Jimmy Ross played with Meredith at Manchester City until his early death in 1902. Despite his successful football career, Ross had been unable to save any money for his wife and children.

Another of Meredith's friends at Manchester City, left-back David Jones, died in 1902, after suffering an injury during a pre-season game. The club claimed he was not "working" at the time as the game was a friendly, even though a paying crowd of 20,000 people watched the game. Jones's widow and children were left with no insurance cover and had to rely on the proceeds of a collection and a benefit match with Bolton Wanderers. According to Meredith, the game raised very little money for the family.

In April 1907 Thomas Blackstock, a colleague at Manchester United, collapsed after heading a ball during a reserve game against St. Helens. 25 year old Blackstock died soon afterwards. An inquest into his death returned a verdict of "Natural Causes" and once again a football player's family received no compensation.

In 1907 Billy Meredith and several colleagues at Manchester United, including Charlie Roberts, Charlie Sagar, Herbert Burgess and Sandy Turnbull, decided to form a new Players' Union. The first meeting was held on 2nd December, 1907, at the Imperial Hotel, Manchester. Also at the meeting were players from Manchester City, Newcastle United, Bradford City, West Bromwich Albion, Notts County, Sheffield United, and Tottenham Hotspur. Jack Bell, the former chairman of the Association Footballers' Union (AFU) also attended the meeting.

Billy Meredith portrayed as Guy Fawkes by the Manchester Evening Newswhen he created the Association Football Players Union (January 1909)
Billy Meredith portrayed as Guy Fawkes by the Manchester Evening News
when he created the Association Football Players Union (January 1909)

Herbert Broomfield was appointed as the new secretary of the Association Football Players Union (AFPU). It was decided to charge an entrance fee of 5s plus subs of 6d a week. Billy Meredith chaired meetings in London and Nottingham and within a few weeks the majority of players in the Football League had joined the union. This included Andrew McCombie, Jim Lawrence and Colin Veitch of Newcastle United who were to become important figures in the AFPU.

The Professional Footballers' Association also got support from administrators of the clubs. J. J. Bentley (president) and John Henry Davies (chairman) of Manchester United joined the campaign to abolish the £4 ceiling on wages.

When Frank Levick of Sheffield United died aged 26 in 1908, the AFPU sent his family £20. They also entered into negotiations with his club about the compensation to be paid to his wife. The AFPU also explored the ways that football players could make use of the Workman's Compensation Act (1906).

At the 1908 Annual General Meeting the Football Association decided to reaffirm the maximum wage. However, they did raise the possibility of a bonus system being introduced whereby players would receive 50% of club profits at the end of the season.

In November 1908 Thompson's Weekly News announced that several leaders of the AFPU, including Billy Meredith, Jim Lawrence and Colin Veitch, would be writing regular articles for the newspaper. For the next six years, this newspaper with a circulation of 300,000, provided a forum for the views of union officials.

The AFPU continued to have negotiations with the Football Association but in April 1909 these came to an end without agreement. In June the FA ordered that all players should leave the AFPU. They were warned that if they did not do so by the 1st July, their registrations as professionals would be cancelled. The AFPU responded by joining the General Federation of Trades Unions.

Most players resigned from the union. All 28 professionals at Aston Villa signed a public declaration that they had left the AFPU and would not rejoin until given permission by the FA. However, the whole of the Manchester United team refused to back down. As a result they were all suspended by their club. The same thing happened to seventeen Sunderland players who also refused to leave the AFPU.

The players put their careers in jeopardy by staying in the union. As Charlie Roberts, the Manchester United captain pointed out: "I had a benefit due with a guarantee of £500 at the time and if the sentence was not removed I would lose that also, besides my wages, so that it was quite a serious matter for me."

Billy Meredith also got into financial difficulties when there was a fire destroyed most of the stock in his sports-equipment shop in St Peter's Square, Manchester. He was not insured and he was forced into bankruptcy.

Colin Veitch, who had resigned from the AFPU in order to carry on negotiations with the Football Association, led the struggle to have players reinstated. At a meeting in Birmingham on 31st August 1909, the FA agreed that professional players could be members of the AFPU and the dispute came to an end.

Billy Meredith saw the decision as a defeat for the Association Football Players Union: "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 ... instead of thinking and acting for himself and his class."

When the Manchester United team played in the first match of the season on 1st September, 1909, they all wore AFPU arm-bands. However, it took six months for the players to receive their back wages. Charlie Roberts never got his benefit match and several union activists were never picked again to play for their country.

Billy Meredith playing for Manchester United.
Billy Meredith playing for Manchester United.

In June 1910 Ernest Mangnal purchased Enoch West from Nottingham Forest. West formed a good partnership with Sandy Turnbull and Harold Halse. Meredith supplied them with the kind of service that allowed them to score plenty of goals that season: West (20), Turnbull (19) and Halse (10). On the last Saturday of the season Aston Villa led Manchester United by one point. United had to play third-place Sunderland at Old Trafford whereas Aston Villa had to go to Liverpool.

Manchester United won their game 5-1. Charlie Roberts told the Manchester Saturday Post what happened next: "At the end of the game our supporters rushed across the ground in front of the stand to wait for the final news from Liverpool. Suddenly a tremendous cheer rent the air and was renewed again and again and we knew we were the champions once again." Aston Villa had been beaten 3-1 and Manchester United had won their second championship in four years. Meredith now had two championship and two FA Cup winning medals.

Meredith was 40 years old on the outbreak of the First World War. It was thought that this meant the end of his career. However, Meredith continued to play for Manchester United and Wales when football began again in 1919.

In 1920 Meredith was transferred to Manchester City. During his time at Manchester United he scored 35 goals in 303 games. He played in his last game for Wales in 1922 at the age of 48. The following year he took part in a FA Cup semi-final. He finally retired from the game at the end of the 1923-24 season.

Billy Meredith died at his home in Manchester on 19th April 1958.

Primary Sources

(1) Frederick Wall, 50 Years of Football (1935)

Although born at Chirk, the nursery of Welsh football, and taught football by the local schoolmaster, Mr. T.E. Thomas, Meredith never spoke Welsh, and he was "hot and bothered" when compatriots began to shower congratulations and compliments upon him in their native Celtic tongue. He seemed more annoyed than pleased, but his mixed feelings can easily be understood.

More of a footballer than a linguist, he was one of the greatest outside-rights who ever played. There can be argument without end when the champions of W.I. Bassett, "Jocky" Simpson and Meredith meet.

A man who always kept himself in perfect condition by an abstemious life, his sole method of training was ball practice. Being spare of habit and lean in limb, two days a week sufficed to keep him fit for the game during 25 years.

An expert dribbler, blessed with sufficient speed, he hugged the touch line, and very often took the ball up to the corner flag before making his centre. His defence of going so far was that all his fellow forwards were on-side when they were behind the ball. This was good logic, even if it be not a fashionable plan in these days.

Not only was he a great dribbler, but he was crafty and cunning in hoodwinking opponents. No man was ever more wary of the outstretched leg for a trip. He hopped over the trap as if it was a twig.

Of the back-heel pass he was a ready exponent, and he remains the only man I have ever seen chewing a quill toothpick while playing in the hardest of matches. Indeed, his toothpick was just as characteristic of him as his bandy legs.

In his day he was a splendid raider, and one of the Manchester City directors, Mr. Joshua Parlby, always declared that he should have been a centre-forward. Possibly goalkeepers were thankful that he was not, for he obtained over 200 goals from outside right.

A good story relates to the Wales v. England match on Wrexham racecourse, in 1908. It was disastrous to Wales, for that was the occasion when L.R. Roose was injured, and in the second half Dai Davies was allowed to keep goal.

Evelyn Lintott, the talented schoolmaster, who was so fine a left half-back, played in all the big matches of 1907-08, and on this occasion he was ordered never to leave Meredith. He clung to him like an affectionate brother.

At last the patience of Meredith gave out and he turned on Lintott with these words: "Go away, you confounded schoolboy. Go away! Do you hear? You have got seven cursed goals, how many more do you want?"

Lintott was silent, but he continued to haunt his jaded adversary. Wales have had lots of fine players, but their football prince remains Meredith the magnificent.

(2) J. A. H. Catton, The Story of Association Football (1926)

Long years ago it was my lot to see much of Meredith in international struggles. Football annuals state that he has played in fifty-one matches for Wales. If any sceptic troubled to write Meredith about these figures, which have been disputed, he would supply all the dates to substantiate this amazing record. He took great pride in playing for Wales, and was one of those rare persons who put all such performances in a book.

My experience is that as a rule sportsmen are most careless about preserving notes of their career. Not so Meredith. One would think that with his love of the red dragon Meredith would be a most enthusiastic Welshman; that he would be quite a fanatic for gallant little Wales.

Yet I remember that one day, as we were walking about the streets of Cardiff after England had won by 1-0, he revealed a troubled soul, for he muttered: "I wish I had been born in England." This surprised me.

He added: "You know the house where I was born was only 300 yards or so over the border. What a time I should have had if I had been an Englishman. I'm sick of being on the losing side."

Then, after a silence, he burst out again: "Here, take my jersey"-and he gave me the red jersey of Wild Wales in which he had played against England. I thanked him for the sporting treasure and stowed it away at the bottom of my kit-bag as soon as possible in case he repented...

The match between Wales and England at, Wrexham in 1908 lingers in memory for two reasons. First, this was Evelyn Lintott's only game against Wales. I had a liking for Lintott, both as a man, when he was chairman of the Players' Union, and as a player, for I first saw him in the jersey of Queen's Park Rangers, while he was an amateur, and knew him when he moved to Yorkshire.

On this occasion at Wrexham Evelyn Lintott had received instructions that he was not to give Meredith a yard of room; that he was never to leave him. I cannot imagine that this was the style of game which commended itself to such a sporting half-back, as instead of being a mere stumbling-block he would sooner have met skill with skill.

Nevertheless, he carried out his orders so loyally and rigidly that Meredith could not move. In the second half, when England had an overwhelming lead, Meredith turned upon Lintott and said: "For God's sake, go away. England has got seven goals. How many more do you want? Are you frightened of being beaten now?"

The indignation of the wily Welshman amused Lintott, but he never relaxed his grip until time had expired, and then he laughed at Meredith, who had not a smile in him.

It was in this match that Leigh R. Roose was injured in the first half. He remained at his post until the interval. In the dressing-rooms Roose had an unpleasant conversation with the English selectors, who thought that the speech of the goalkeeper was not such as might be expected from a gentleman.

(3) Kevin Allanson, BBC Wales Website (4th June, 2007)

Billy Meredith was my Grandfather's Uncle (Charles Leslie Kington known as Leslie or Les). He told me how sometimes he would as a young lad go with Billy to practice his corner kicks. Grandad would lay his hankercheif in various spots around the goal mouth and Billy would aim to land the ball on there or as close to it as possible. His success rate used to impress Grandad even though he was not a huge football fan. Billy gave him one of his Welsh caps, which he then later passed down to my brother, as he is a bigger football fan than me. Grandad also told me how Billy would walk from work to the game, play 90 minutes, and then walk home, which he said was some distance - no flash cars in those days!

(4) John Harding, For the Good of the Game (1991)

When First Division status - painfully earned on a shoestring budget - was briefly lost in 1901, wholesale changes occurred at Hyde Road, Manchester City's original home. Backed by newspaper millionaire Edward Hulton's money, Scotsman Tom Maley rapidly bought and built a successful new side that swept back into the First Division and took the FA Cup to Manchester for the first time the following year...

The following season, however, City's strong challenge for the League title ended disappointingly: needing to beat Aston Villa in their last match (in the hope that Newcastle might drop a point at lowly Middlesborough), City tried hard but lost 3-2. The match was marred by fighting among the players both during and after the game and, following as it did some ugly incidents in an earlier City versus Everton match, the FA felt obliged to investigate.

The subsequent enquiry revealed startling and totally unexpected evidence of attempted bribery involving of Meredith and, despite his protestations of innocence, he was suspended for a year, banned from City's ground and fined.

More sensations were to follow as Meredith, angered by the attitude of Manchester's City's officials, pestered the club for financial recompense. This led to yet more official investigations with Meredith ultimately turning 'King's Evidence', admitting illegal payments and thus bringing down the whole house of cards City had so carefully constructed.

So outraged was the FA by what had been uncovered that it virtually dismembered the club: the complete Cup-winning side of 1903 was suspended and banned from ever playing for City again; directors (including josh Parlby, one of the original Football League founder members) were banned for life and the club was fined to within an inch of survival.

Meredith, along with other key City players, was subsequently snapped up by Manchester United, a club with just as much ambition as City but with a rather more far-sighted management. Within two years United were League champions, the following year they took the Cup and in 1910 the whole organization moved from east to west across the city to spacious Old Trafford, to a stadium built for the twentieth century and a fitting stage for its talented, attractive team.

(5) Billy Meredith, Thompson's Weekly News (December 1909)

What is more reasonable than our plea that a footballer with his uncertain career should have the best money that he can earn? If I can earn £7 a week, why should I be debarred from receiving it? I have devoted my life to football and I have become a better player than most because I have denied myself much that men prize. A man who takes the care of himself that I have ever done and who fights the temptations of all that can injure the system surely deserves some recognition and reward!

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 by club secretaries in England. 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 realized 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 hence the formation and success of the Players' Union with its 1300 paying members at the end of the first year...

What opens the door to irregular payments is the rank injustice of the £4 per week limit and of the transfer system which gives a club £1000 for a player and allows the latter - one really ought to call him the goods -£10. If the £10 went to the club and the £1000 to the man whose ability it is the agreed value of, there would be more justice in it.

(6) Ken Allanson, BBC Wales Website (15th June, 2007)

I met Billy Meredith at his home in Manchester when he was in his eighties. My father in law, Charles Leslie Kingston, was his nephew and he took me to meet the great man. I had a long and interesting conversation with him. He was a strong character and was not reticent in giving his opinions on the "modern game". Some of his comments were: Stanley Mathews - a good player but not half as good as BM who scored more than 200 goals in his career. Penalties - In BM's day goalies were allowed to move so they usually charged forward as the kick was taken so he calmly lobbed them and rarely missed. Man City / Utd - Now preferred to watch City as they treated him as a VIP whereas he had to pay for his ticket at Utd. Drinking - Nothing in excess but always drank mild rather bitter. A fascinating character.