It was 29th March 1924 at Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s stadium, that played host to the last match of Association Football’s first genuine superstar, William Henry Meredith.
The man hailing from the coal mining communities of North Wales was mass of contradictions. A teetotaller who ran a pub; Slight of build but hard as nails; A devout Methodist who succumb to bribery and a fierce advocate for player rights with a remarkable streak of selfishness on the pitch. “Superstar” Billy Meredith was complex and absolutely singular. The Welshman laid the foundations for the game’s professionalism we know today.
By all accounts – as video footage is almost non-existent – Meredith was a tremendously skilful player in an age where GBH would be considered a good, firm tackle and pitches were little better than balding, sodden bogs. He combined tremendous toughness with great agility and reflexes which allowed him to avoid serious injury.
On top of this Meredith was a teetotaller and a non-smoker. Spending his spare time doing extra training and maintaining extraordinary levels of physical fitness, which, allowed him to play until he was almost fifty-years old! Moreover, it allowed him to avoid injury from the more rudimentary style of defending that was commonplace in the era. The extra work meant his technique both in dribbling and passing was immaculate.
His ability on the field, his trademark toothpick, razor sharp cheekbones, intelligence and outspoken character made him an extremely valuable commodity in the game. It was this combination that allowed him to claim fame as great as any entertainer of his day.
A long career saw Meredith claim two league titles, two FA cups, 39 caps for Wales and scoring 176 goals across his time at Manchester United and Manchester City.
It was also this fame that lead him to catch the heat for a bribery scandal in 1905. Meredith, who felt deserted by the management at City, and suspended for an entire season, turned informer, exposing a wider practice of bribery in the game.
United manager Ernest Mangnall sniffed an opportunity in the fallout and poached Meredith and striker Sandy Turnbull from City. Pre-Meredith, United (or Newton Heath) had never won a major trophy. Within five years of his arrival they had won two league titles and an FA Cup. He gave United the must-see glamour that drove the club’s move to Old Trafford in 1910 and formed the basis of the commercial behemoth we know today.
However, Meredith’s impact stretched far beyond United and City.
Born in Chirk, North Wales to a Primitive Methodist family in 1874, Meredith left school at just 12-years old to work in the nearby Black Park Colliery. Like many others he toiled in unimaginable conditions, driving pit ponies in the bowls of the Earth. It was a job he did for eight years.
Along with his religious beliefs, his time in the pits undoubtedly influenced his social worldview and drove him to form the Players Union in 1907. Rebelling against the maximum wage the Football Association imposed on players – most of whom were from working class backgrounds – Meredith felt that players should be rewarded and looked after.
When the PR began to get away from the obstinate old farts of the FA, they refused to recognise the Union and demanded obedience and subjugation of the clubs. All but Meredith’s club, United, and his teammates caved in and as a result United’s players were suspended, coining the nickname, “Outcasts FC.”
Meredith and his teammates felt that footballers needed to join up with the growing Trade Union movement to give themselves a better bargaining position with the clubs. When many other Player’s Union members refused to link up with other worker’s unions, essentially ending the organisation, Meredith referred to those players as unserious and “schoolboy.”
It was typically uncompromising from the hard-nosed, relentlessly driven Welshman who suffered no fools and went against the grain while making himself utterly indispensable. Meredith was legend in red and blue and a towering figure in the history of the game, using his status to fight social and economic injustice. An icon whose impact goes beyond the tribalism of the football pitch.