Billy Meredith: Football's first superstar
Billy Meredith is one of the most important names in the long history of Manchester United.
Described as the first footballing superstar, he was a vital figure in United’s first five trophy triumphs – the Division One titles of 1908 and 1911, the FA Cup of 1909 and the Charity Shields of 1908 and 1911 – and also captained rivals Manchester City to their first-ever trophy, the 1904 FA Cup.
But among his many achievements, he remains our oldest ever player, a record he set 100 years ago to this day when making his final appearance for United at the age of 46 years and 281 days, on 7 May 1921.
To mark this anniversary, and to also welcome the imminent reopening of the Manchester United Museum on 21 May 2021, we look at the life of the ‘Welsh Wizard’ through several artefacts, while analysing what it was like to be a professional footballer in the early 1900s.
Born in a small coal-mining village near Chirk, North Wales, Meredith began his working career at the age of twelve, unhooking the tubs at the bottom of the main shaft of the Black Park Colliery. Having shown great football skills while still at school, young Billy joined his local football team as an amateur four years later. He continued to play for the side, consisting mainly of his fellow pit workers, until a miners’ strike forced the players to withdraw from the League. Eager to follow his passion, he joined Northwich Victoria, where he was soon spotted by one of Manchester City’s scouts.
Under his mother’s influence, who had little regard for football as a profession, Billy remained an amateur and continued to work in the mines for the first four years of his playing career. A strong believer that footballers should also have proper jobs, he argued that clubs should allow their players to seek employment outside of football.
Dubbed the ‘Welsh Wizard’ for his astonishing wing play and dribbling skills, Meredith is remembered for his staple toothpick, which he chewed while playing to help him concentrate. His winding runs down the wing, coupled with his pinpoint crosses, made him an exceptional talent and one of the most popular footballers of his generation.
He continued to delight football supporters with his skills well into his mid-forties due to his strict fitness regime and abstinence from alcohol.
Two years after winning the FA Cup with Manchester City in 1904, Billy’s career with the Blues was cut short when the FA’s investigation into the alleged bribery and match-fixing unearthed payments of wages above the legal limit of £4 per week. Already serving a lengthy 18-month suspension, Billy had to leave City and joined United, who happily paid both his £100 fine and a £500 signing-on fee to secure the star player. The club's investment paid off tenfold as the arrival of Meredith, together with three other Blues also embroiled in the scandal, kick-started our first successful era in which two League Championships and the FA Cup were won.
An avid supporter of the abolition of the maximum wage and the introduction of contractual freedoms, Meredith devoted his life to campaigning for change.
Having made his United debut on New Year's Day in 1907, Meredith and Charlie Roberts, a fellow Red, continued to fight for footballers’ rights and by the end of the year they chaired the inaugural meeting of the newly re-established Players’ Union.
To ambush the union’s growing popularity, in 1909 the FA instructed football clubs to include a clause in players’ contracts forcing them to forfeit their membership or face a playing ban. The measures seemed to have worked on almost all but the United players. The newly crowned FA Cup winners, including Meredith, refused to leave the union and were subsequently banned.
Nicknamed ‘The Outcasts FC’, the players continued to train at a local sports ground while refusing to conform to the new directive. With only 24 hours left until the season’s opening fixture, the FA finally gave in and revoked the players’ bans. Despite the continued efforts, the maximum wage legislation remained in place until 1961.
Meredith’s charismatic personality and remarkable success at both domestic and international levels elevated him to star-player status. At the height of his fame, Billy's popularity was so huge that his benefit match in 1912 attracted a vast crowd of 39,000 spectators.
With association football still in its infancy, Meredith’s coaches were drawn from former athletes like boxers and runners rather than ex-footballers. With no on-the-pitch experience, they placed more focus on skipping, sprinting around the ground and other forms of gymnastics rather than ball practice. A life-long campaigner to change the existing training drills, Meredith was appalled by the fact that many professional footballers were even unable to keep the ball at their feet.
Following his retirement from football at the age of 49, Meredith returned to United as a coach and began implementing ball practice into training sessions.
Keen to capitalise on his huge popularity, Meredith invested in numerous businesses. His entrepreneurial spirit first came to light when he used his £500 signing-on fee to set up a sports outfitter’s shop opposite the Manchester Town Hall, which later supplied United with kit for the 1909 FA Cup final.
Lavished with media attention, Billy continued to secure regular radio appearances and newspaper interviews following his retirement. A guest speaker, a columnist, a pub landlord, an actor and cinema owner were also among the extra-curricular activities and ventures he set up to secure his financial future. Unfortunately, despite his star status and numerous investments, Meredith had not managed to shield himself from financial worries of the older age.
Despite being one of the most famous and popular players of the Edwardian heyday of Mancunian football, Meredith was close to poverty when he died in 1958.