In 1904 Welsh winger Billy Meredith was voted the most popular player in football. He was loved by fans and applauded wherever he went. Yet just a few months later he was charged with attempting to bribe an opponent and banned for a year and a half.
However, such was his popularity – and skill – that this amazing Welsh superstar quickly returned to the game and continued to play at the top level until he was nearly 50 years old.
Billy Meredith was born at Chirk in north Wales on 30 July 1874. Leaving school at the age of 12, he began work as a pony driver in Black Park Colliery.
Football, however, was a passion and Meredith, like most other miners in the north Wales area, watched and played the game whenever he could. His brother Sam had already turned professional, playing at full back for Stoke, and there were many who said that Billy was an even better prospect.
The standards of football in north east Wales were incredibly high at the end of the 19th century. Chirk, home club for all the Meredith boys, won the Welsh Cup no fewer than five times between 1887 and 1894. There were many talented players in the region and from an early age it was clear that Billy Meredith was amongst the best of the best.
His elder brother Elias was a train driver and this enabled Billy to travel over wide areas of north west England, under the protective eye of his brother, watching professional sides such as Everton and Stoke.
Watching football was great but playing the game was what really mattered. Meredith made his debut for Chirk in September 1892. Although, that season, Chirk lost the Welsh Cup Final 2-1 to Wrexham, he went on to win the trophy with Chirk just a few years later.
Signed to Manchester City
Regarded by many as too small and slight for the rigours of the professional game, Meredith eventually signed to Manchester City in 1894 as an amateur. He continued to work at Black Park Colliery and travelled to Manchester for the games at weekends. He made his debut in a 5-4 defeat by Newcastle United, his second game being against Newton Heath, a club that later changed its name to Manchester United.
Meredith eventually turned professional in January 1895. In his first full season for Manchester City he was the club's top scorer, even though he played on the wing – and in those days it was never easy to score from there. Very quickly he became renowned for the quality and accuracy of his crosses, no mean achievement on the muddy quagmires that passed as playing fields at that time and with a ball that often weighed like a rock.
Billy Meredith was captain of Manchester City when they won the FA Cup in 1904, the club's first major honour. He was loved by fans, both of the club and of Wales – for whom he had now gained his first international cap.
However, at the end of the 1904-05 season he was accused and found guilty of attempting to bribe an opponent, Alex Leake of Aston Villa. Meredith had, apparently, offered Leake £10 to throw the game. As a result of the scandal Meredith was banned from Manchester City for 18 months.
While still serving his ban, Meredith transferred to Manchester United, making his debut on 1 January 1907. Very quickly, he became a firm favourite with the United fans, just as he had been at neighbours City. The bribery scandal was quickly forgotten and Meredith went on to make well over 300 appearances for Manchester United.
Meredith continued to play until he was nearly 50 years old. In 1921 he returned to Manchester City where he played with a casual grace and elegance – usually with a toothpick clasped firmly in his mouth. His last league match, appropriately enough, was against Newcastle United – the side against whom he had made his debut all those years ago – in the semi-final of the FA Cup. He was 49 years 245 days old, making him the oldest player ever to appear at that stage of the competition.
In his amazing career Meredith played 390 games for Manchester City, 365 for Manchester United. He gained 48 caps for Wales. It could and should have been many more but club commitments and the scarcity of international opportunities in those days limited his list of honours. He scored 11 goals for Wales – a record at that time – and made his last appearance for his country when he was 45 years old.
He won two Football League Championship medals, two FA Cup Medals and played in two Charity Shields. Only Stanley Matthews has ever played more games, in the outfield, than the redoubtable Billy Meredith.
A founder member of the Players Union – the first attempt at forming a union for professional footballers – Meredith was often in conflict with the football authorities.
When the FA banned the Players Union in 1909, Meredith and many of his Manchester United colleagues refused to abandon the Union, earning for themselves the sobriquet of the Outcasts FC. A compromise was eventually reached before the start of the new season but Meredith, ever happy to speak up for the underdogs, continued to advocate for the rights of the players.
Billy Meredith was a superstar in the days when such a title was unheard of – and it was not something he would have wanted anyway. But his skill and abilities were legendary and his longevity was nothing short of amazing.
He died on 19 April 1958, just a few weeks after the Munich Air Disaster that claimed the lives of so many Manchester United players. A footballing superstar indeed.