Wales' Greatest Players: Billy Meredith

ImageVery little football of any quality was played outside Britain before the First World War and consequently the most outstanding footballer in Britain during that period was arguably the world's best footballer. As the Welshman Billy Meredith was considered to be the finest footballer of his generation in Britain, it is likely that he would have won the FIFA Ballon d'Or several times, had that competition existed a century ago. Meredith certainly stands in the same category as Messi and Ronaldo today, and with other Welsh legends, such as John Charles and Gareth Bale.

Early days at Chirk
Meredith was born in 1874 in Chirk, a village in the coalmining area of southeast Denbighshire. Whilst at the local school, he came under the influence of a schoolmaster called T.E Thomas who introduced football to many young boys at that time, several of whom became successful players in due course.

Meredith went to work at the local coal mine after leaving school, and started playing football for the village club, earning a reputation as a clever and pacy winger. He briefly played for the Cheshire club Northwich Victoria, before signing his first professional contract for Manchester City in 1895.

Manchester City’s star winger

City were considered to be one of the finest teams in England during the turn of the twentieth century, much being down to Meredith’s wingplay. They won the FA Cup in 1904 under the captaincy of Meredith who scored the only goal in the final against Bolton Wanderers.

In 1905 City suffered as a result of an FA investigation into financial misconduct. Meredith himself was banned from playing for three seasons as a result of an allegation of bribing an opponent, although this accusation was much disputed. City’s neighbours, Manchester United, had lived for several years in the shadow of their traditional enemy but their manager, Ernest Mangnall, was in the process of building a competitive team. He signed Meredith in May 1906 although he would not be free to play until April 1908.

Manchester United’s First Golden Age

The ban on Meredith was raised by January 1907 and he became the catalyst for United’s first golden age. The following season United won the league title with a nine points lead over the other teams.

By then the Welshman was in his prime and his skill on the ball was thrilling crowds up and down the country. Meredith’s style of play appealed to the fans and whenever he was passed the ball the excitement rose among the crowd. He was not particularly quick but was very sharp over the first few yards and could dribble better than anyone. Like every good player, he could read the game and knew instinctively when to beat a tackle. He controlled the ball well and would also shoot when the opportunity arose. He resembled a matador in his method of beating defenders: they would see the ball for a moment, but before they could respond Meredith had rounded them to the cheers the crowd. Several bull-like full-backs were left standing by the Welsh wizard.

Meredith had a swagger about him much like some of the most popular United footballers such as Denis Law and Eric Cantona. Nevertheless he placed great emphasis on keeping fit. He only missed a few games due to injury in his entire career, and pictures of him when he was still playing in his forties show a slender but tough body with no traces of overindulgence. On match days he would take a glass of port before playing and boiled chicken after the game. He would smear smelly embrocation on his legs to keep them supple. Off the field, Meredith was one of the first to capitalize on his popularity by opening a shop selling football kit and sports goods in Manchester. Although he lives in Manchester with his wife and children, he also often returned to the peace of his old home in Chirk.

One of the reasons for the success of United in this period was that the players were close friends off the field. They would discuss the game constantly. The most intelligent of them, such as Meredith, would dictate the tactics to be employed on the field, rather than the manager. To trick the other team, Meredith would use secret signs with his arms to his fellow players during a game. There was collaboration among the players in other respects as well

Union Man 

Meredith was particularly disgruntled with the treatment he had received by the Football Association in 1905. He believed that the FA was prejudiced against the Manchester clubs in the dispute and that he had been cheated because he was Welsh, while the English players were treated differently. He noted that rich directors were able to continue as before, while he remained on the dole. He had come to believe that a footballer had the right in a free market to sell his labour according to his personal aspirations. This would mean the removal of the rule whereby all players received a maximum salary, which was £4 a week in those days. He believed a player should also be able to move from club to club, with little hindrance, to negotiate for himself the best wage.

An attempt to establish a trade union for footballers had failed in the past but on 2 December 1907 delegates from more than a dozen clubs met at the Imperial Hotel in Manchester. Meredith himself chaired the meeting and The Association of Football Players Union was founded officially the following month.

Meredith was not socialist and, like many of his contemporaries, voted for the Liberal Party. He was an admirer of a fellow ‘Welsh wizard’, David Lloyd George, a government minister at that time and one who would become Prime Minister in 1916. Meredith argued that players had the right to negotiate their wages according to their ability on the field, so that he, as one of the best footballers of the day, would earn more than the rest. However, the new Union would also press for financial support to footballers who were unable to play when injured.

The FA opposed changing the maximum wage rule and accused Meredith and others of being selfish and greedy. In February 1909 the FA saw its opportunity to take revenge on Meredith. Meredith had been sent off for the first time in his career and he was punished with a severe ban of one month. Meredith had been dismissed in an F A Cup match and the ban was considered to be a major blow to United’s hopes of winning the trophy for the first time.

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However, United reached the final to be played at Crystal Palace and Meredith returned to the team. United’s opponents were Bristol City but Meredith created the only goal of the game scored by Sandy Turnbull. Thousands thronged the streets of Manchester when United returned to the city with the Cup. According to one reporter, Meredith was now 'the Lloyd George of Welsh football'. Despite the triumph, the summer of 1909 was a period of bitter dispute between the players and the Football Association. The players threatened to strike earlier this year, frightening many clubs. Pressure was put on the clubs to show their loyalty to the FA, which was clever enough to offer an amnesty to those clubs which were still under investigation for illegal payments to players. The clubs were pressurised into including a clause in their players’ contracts whereby each player would agree to abide by the FA’s rules. This would effectively undermine the Players’ Union.

That summer saw footballers throughout England succumbing to pressure from the clubs to sign the new contracts. Only one team had players with sufficient courage to withstand this pressure: Manchester United. Their main leader was Charlie Roberts who formed a team called the Outcasts, which included the main United stars, including Meredith. They were no longer paid by the club and the situation deteriorated for Meredith when his sports shop in Manchester burned to the ground, an event which led to Meredith being declared bankrupt.

Ultimately, the bone of contention between the players and the FA was the opposition by the latter to the Players’ Union joining the Federation of Trade Unions, a move which could lead to other trade unionists lending their support in the case of a players’ strike. Eventually the Union gave in on this issue and the dispute came to an end. The efforts of Roberts, Meredith and the Outcasts came to nothing and it would take another fifty years before players were free to negotiate their own salaries. The clubs had proved too powerful and the FA s domination of the game was to continue at a time when many of the battles for the rights of workers were still to be won. Meredith was the last to sign a new agreement and he was fortunate that United continued to appreciate his contribution to the club.

The Veteran

The following season, 1909-10, United won the Championship once more, with the 37 year old Meredith remaining a star. A testimonial match for him was held in 1912 between United and old rivals Manchester City. Forty thousand fans attended and £1,400 was raised for Meredith, at that time the most ever raised in a testimonial match. This was not the end of Meredith’s career by far but his heyday was over. The First World War overshadowed all sporting activity and football was no longer deemed important in the light of the carnage in the trenches of Flanders.

After the war, even though he was by then in his forties, Meredith remained fit and eager to play, but his relationship with United had deteriorated. He moved back to Manchester City but he was a pale shadow of the winger who had terrorised defences in the past.

Playing for Wales

Meredith had won his first cap for Wales in 1895, playing against Ireland in Belfast. At that time Wales played no international matches against teams from the continent, simply playing annual games against the other UK nations in the British Championship. Meredith went on to win 48 caps over a period of twenty-five years, scoring 10 goals. Among these was a brilliant individual goal which secured an unexpected draw against England in 1900.

For Meredith a major aspiration was to beat England. The closest Wales came to defeating England when Meredith was at the peak of his career was in 1907 when Wales clinched the British Championship for the first time in its history. This was a major achievement, as it was in the face of the unwillingness of clubs to release their players to appear for Wales, a situation which has plagued Wales ever since. In all, 21 players appeared in the red shirt of Wales in the three matches played that season.

Having beaten Ireland and Scotland, Wales travelled to Craven Cottage, London, to face England on 18 March. Meredith was at his best that day and he created the first goal for Billy Lot Jones, a former team-mate to Meredith with Chirk and Manchester City. England scored a lucky equalizing goal in the second half to secure a draw. Meredith complained afterwards that, late in the game, the referee from England denied Wales a clear penalty for hand ball which would have given the Welsh the opportunity to earn a famous victory. Nevertheless, a draw was good enough to secure the Championship and Meredith and the Football Association of Wales were delighted with the achievement.

A wonderful film of Meredith playing for Wales against England at Wrexham in 1912 has survived and can be seen on the British Film Institute’s website. The cameraman clearly had instructions to film Meredith and there is plenty of footage of the winger, together with many shots of goalmouth incidents. Wales lost 2-0 that day but Meredith realised his dream of beating England in the last game he played for his country on 15 March 1920, at Arsenal’s then new stadium, Highbury. By then Meredith was 45 years old but he still possessed the skills to create problems for the English defence.

There was snow on the field as Meredith appeared for the last time in the red shirt of his country but this did not interfere with the contribution of the wily old fox. Charlie Buchan scored the first goal for England but Dick Richards and Stan Davies scored for Wales to secure a famous victory. In the dressing room after the game Meredith was in tears and he was later presented with a silver trophy by the

Football Association of Wales as a token of his remarkable contribution over such a long period.

Wales’s Greatest Right Winger?

After retiring from the game in 1924, when he was approaching his fiftieth birthday, he remained a popular figure in Manchester. His death in April 1958 received less attention than might have been expected but Manchester remained under the cloud of the Munich air disaster, two months earlier. Nevertheless, Meredith is among those few who have qualified for the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame as well as the English Football Hall of Fame.

Meredith was the greatest player of his time and is a shoe-in for the right wing position of any all-time Wales international XI. Other great Welsh wingers – Bale, Giggs and Cliff Jones- can fight over the other wing spot.

A decent record!

(based on Gwyn Jenkins and Ioan Gwyn, The Manchester United Welsh (Y Lolfa, 2016). See also John Harding, Football Wizard: the Billy Meredith Story (1985)

This piece was written kindly for @TFHBs by Welsh writer - Gwyn Jenkins - follow him on Twitter @Machludwr or find out more here.

Check out more of our Wales' Greatest Players Series:
We discuss our Wales' Greatest series on Episode 1 of our #TFHBPodcast, please check it out!


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