In the early decades of international football the Welsh, English, Scottish and Irish would regularly slug it out with each other in annual fixtures.The history books show that the British Home Nations Championships were founded in 1883/84, a chance to officially record one of these teams as 'international champions'. With world football still developing in the latter part of the Victorian period, these games were really one of the most prestigious events a player could win. Finally, in 1907, with superstar 'wing wizard' Billy Meredith returning from a controversial ban, and at the 24th time of asking, Wales would win a maiden title.
The Welsh were always playing something of 'catch up' as association football began to grow within the British Isles. The English FA was founded in 1863 as they sought to codify football and bring a uniformity to the local differences that existed across the country. This seismic moment was followed by the first ever international game between England and Scotland in 1872, whilst a 0-0, it showed the possibilities and quickly drew attraction from fans throughout Britain.
In 1876, the Football Association of Wales (FAW) would be founded. Welsh businessmen, wanting a piece of the international action, would pull together a team of ten North Walians and a single man from the South to travel up to Glasgow in March of that year. Despite losing 4-0, the Welsh national team were now up and running and the very next year hosted their first ever international, again against Scotland, in Wrexham. The 2-0 defeat was nothing to be ashamed of, the Scots (known as the 'Scotch Professors') were early developers of style and skill with their revolutionary 'combination football'.
Welsh club football was quick to take hold in the north of the country. Wrexham AFC (1864) are one of football's oldest surviving club's, but Oswestry Town FC (1860) and Chirk AAA FC (1876) were also early stalwarts. Their establishment would lead on to the founding of the Welsh Cup in 1877/78, "introduced with the initial aim of finding players of international calibre". Wrexham would take victory that first season and the cup became an important element of Welsh football, dominated by the northern clubs, until in 1912 Cardiff City brought the trophy south for the first time.
|Chirk were one of Welsh football's early clubs|
Back to the international stage, and in 1883/84 the Welsh, English, Scottish and Irish associations unwittingly founded the first ever 'British International Championship'. The name would eventually develop in the 1890s, as would the idea of group play point scoring (1 point for a draw, 2 for a win). This means the early years of the Championships have had their final standings backdated, but results now stand officially.
In 1884, the fledgling competition was unstructured and saw Ireland play all three of their fixtures first in the space of a month. The first game, between the Irish and the Scottish took place on 26 January at Ulster's Ballynafeigh. The Dublin Daily Express recorded that it was "the most boisterous ever experienced in Belfast" with a "large attendance of spectators" present. The Irish were drubbed 0-5, but it was a "rare thing for the Irish players to face such a good forward team".
On 9 February it would be Wales' turn to have a crack at the Irish at the Racecourse Ground, Wrexham. Wales, in their red and white patchwork kit, notched a 6-0 victory: a brace each from William Pierce Owen (Ruthin Town) and Edward Shaw (Oswestry Town), added to by strikes from Albert Jones (Druids) and future WWI medical officer John Eyton-Jones (Wrexham).
The Irish newspapers provided detailed match reports, one writing how "the Welshmen are a splendid lot, and it will take Scotland and England to look out, as the Welsh will take a lot of beating". In South Wales reporting was muted, column inches taken up by news of the 'South Wales Challenge Cup', meaning the international was given a simple line containing the incorrect score: "Wales v Ireland was played at Wrexham on Saturday, and was won by the Welsh team, who scored five goals to nil".
|Wrexham's current Racecourse Ground - the original home of Welsh football|
Ireland's thumpings were compounded by England, who beat them 1-8 at home a fortnight later, but for the Welsh two big losses would also be inflicted upon them. Beaten 0-4 by England in Wrexham and 4-1 by Scotland in Glasgow, it would be Scotland's 1-0 trumiph over the English that would see them recorded as history's first ever 'British International Champions'.
Scotland would in fact win the first four editions of this competition, England breaking their dominance in 1888. The Welsh and the Irish in those early years were left battling for third place, Wales achieving this position six of the first eight times. Cymru's first second place was enjoyed in the 1894/95 group, drawing 2-2 with Ireland, 1-1 with England and 2-2 with Scotland leaving them unbeaten but joint second with Scotland behind the victorious English.
During this period, the home nations were described as "proud and insular" , and therefore did not join the seven founder members of Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) on 21 May 1904. However, England's boycott did not last long, and in April 1905 the FA agreed to join as FIFA agreed to use the 'Laws of the Game of the Football Association Ltd' as a rulebook for world football. The decision saw Wales eventually join too, 1910 the year that the FAW became affiliated with the world governing body.
So to 1907, and with the first international tournament involving European teams not taking place till the following year (the 1908 Olympics), the British International Championships (now remembered as the 'Home' Championships), were still considered on these shores as a way of deciding the best team in the world.
Wales were bolstered by the return of their star winger, Billy Meredith. Meredith truly was one of football's early 'celebrity' players. Born in Chirk, Denbighshire, Meredith originally followed the village profession of mining at just the age of 12. Meredith though, had his talents recognised, and his love for the game offered an escape from a life down the mine. Meredith joined English clubs Northwich Victoria before moving to Ardwick AFC (who became Manchester City) in 1894. Initially remaining an amateur whilst still mining, Meredith later turned professional and became a talisman for Man City, featuring nearly 340 times and scoring nearly 130 goals.
|Billy Meredith - a Welsh great|
Controversy had stunned Meredith's and Man City's fans at the end of the 1904/05 Football League campaign. Following an on-field scrap between his City teammate Sandy Turnbull and Aston Villa captain Alex Leake, a subsequent FA investigation uncovered accusations of bribery against superstar Meredith. Meredith denied the charges but was found guilty and banned for the 1905/06 season. Billy Meredith was banned - the modern equivalent of Gareth Bale, at the heights of his powers, receiving a season's ban for allegedly bribing an opponent!
Meredith eventually blamed City manager Tom Maley for ordering him to bribe Leake, this leading to him leaving Man City for rivals Manchester United in May 1906 (whilst still banned). Angered by newspaper articles written against him, on 11 June 1906, Meredith published an 'open letter' in Athletic News. The staggeringly honest piece (snippets below), details his feelings of stigmatisation at being labelled "disloyal and treacherous". He states his frustration at those demanding that he should have been "wiped out of football for ever", when in his eyes, he "was only the spokesman of others equally guilty". Meredith even goes on to explain financial losses of £1,674 due to the suspension, an estimated £204,884 today.
|Meredith's stunning 'open letter' to Athletic News, 11 June 1906 |
|Meredith's continues, detailing his financial losses due to the ban |
Every good story needs an element of redemption, and on New Year's Day 1907, Billy Meredith would return from his exile from football. Now playing for Manchester United, Meredith would ironically set up now-United teammate Sandy Turnbull for the winner (the man whose fight in 1905 had sparked the FA investigation). The opponents? Aston Villa.
Just two months later, Meredith was back in the red of Wales. His last appearance had been on 27 March 1905, almost years had passed, but on 23 February 1907, Meredith was in the Welsh squad at Solitude, Belfast. Despite heavy snow in the days prior to the game, the match would go ahead and Meredith would make his presence felt. After falling behind in the tenth minute to a Charlie O'Hagan strike, Meredith would break away just two minutes later, his cross from the right was punched by Irish keeper James Sherry but forward Dickie Morris was on hand to head in the rebound: 1-1.
After a long goalless period, the game would light up inside the final 15 minutes. The Referee reported "Meredith's play on the right was very effective", and he was assisted by Gordon Jones in the 76th minute whose ball allowed Meredith to give Wales the 1-2 lead. Ireland would quickly equalise, but with around only seven minutes remaining, Manchester City's Chirk-born Lot Jones bagged the winner, Wales were off to a flying 2-3 start to their 1907 British International Championship campaign.
Cymru's second fixture was versus the Scottish a fortnight later in Wrexham. Scotland were once formidable opponents for the Welsh; in the first 29 fixtures between the two, Scotland had 24 wins and five draws. However, 1907 offered the Welsh a chance to record a third straight victory, a victory that would set up a potentially grandstand finish against England.
Scotland dominated the game offensively whilst doubling up defensively on Meredith, as Newcastle United Left-half Peter McWilliam and Woolwich Arsenal Left-back Jimmy Sharp kept him quiet. The Eastern Daily Press detailed the tactic: "McWilliam had the most arduous experience in watching Meredith, but with the aid of Sharp, always extremely good, the great Welsh forward was allowed little scope for exercising his great powers".
Wales in 1907 were more than just Meredith though, with one of the world's best keepers, Leigh Richmond 'Dick' Roose (later tragically killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916), holding out the Scottish attacks. Up front Lot Jones was prolific too, but it was Nottingham Forest Inside Forward Grenville Morris (still the club's all-time record goalscorer today), who notched the key goal on 4 March. Late in the second half, Morris gave Wales a win that various newspaper reports declared them lucky to have earned, but the manner of the triumph was unimportant, Wales were two from two.
|Leigh Richmond Roose - a heroic Welsh goalkeeper|
The shape of the schedule meant that England would play Scotland after Wales' final match, themselves with the English. Wales therefore had to avoid defeat to be in with a good shot at being declared the 'Home Champions' when all the results came in. Hosted at Fulham's Craven Cottage, Wales would need their best players to turn up, but they were dealt a blow as experienced defenders Horace Blew and Charlie Morris were both unavailable for the game.
When in need though, the superstar turned up. The Sportsman's match-report is littered with praise for the original Welsh 'wing wizard' Meredith, writing how "their [Wales'] forwards, magnificently lead by Meredith, know how to keep the ball down" and enjoyed "the brilliance of Meredith, who dribbled magnificently on the Welsh right wing". Mid-way through the first 45 his play created the breakthrough: "the outcome of superb play on the part of W. Meredith, who dribbled delightfully along the touch line, and then sent the ball whizzing past the goalmouth. It went out to Evans, who did his best thing the match when returned it front of goal for [Lot] Jones to apply the finishing touch." Wales had the valuable lead and managed to keep hold of it until the break.
England improved in the second half. With a strong wind now behind them, and time to regroup at the break, they managed to stifle the Welsh pressure and exert some of their own. "There was far more rhythm and swing about the Englishmen" and this swing led to a George Wall shot being blocked by Lloyd Davies, but he could not prevent Newcastle United Inside Forward Jimmy Stewart tapping in the rebound to level the tie at 1-1.
England's momentum nearly led to a winner for the home side, Dick Roose making a string of good saves, but in the closing minutes Wales had a penalty shout. Scottish referee Robert Murray turned down the appeals from the visitors as Blackburn Rovers 'one-club man' Bob Crompton appeared to handle the ball. The incident thankfully did not prove fatal for Wales and at full-time the sides shared the spoils.
|The Sportsman, 19 March 1907|
With there still a chance for England to take the title in their match in Newcastle against Scotland, Wales would be thankful that the English could only draw, 1-1 again. The British International (Home) Championships were going to Wales for the first ever time. The nation had arrived on the international scene with some good performances and even better results.
Sadly for Meredith and company there was no trophy to lift, the British Home Championships trophy first being introduced in 1935, but the result still marks a significant one in the history of the Welsh game. They had done it with a strong squad of some fine players, but of course the sprinkling of Meredith's magic too. He had everything we love in a modern celebrity: charisma, the sniff of controversy and most importantly, supreme talent.
Football in the early 1900s boring? By no means! One of Welsh football's greatest moments? Without doubt!
|British Home Championships trophy (first used 1935)|
 There are various places to read about the development of 'combination football', but read more about the Scotch Professors on The Football Pink.
 The FAW website, accessed: https://www.faw.cymru/en/about-faw/who-are-faw/.
 Dublin Daily Express, 28 January 1884.
 Belfast News-Letter, 11 February 1884.
 Western Mail, 11 February 1884.
 Richard Holt, Sport and The British (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) p.273.
[7[ Read more about Billy Meredith in: John Harding, Football Wizard: The Story of Billy Meredith (Manchester: Empire Publications, 2014), and on our own site by Gwyn Jenkins here.
 Athletic News, 11 June 1906
 The Referee, 24 February 1907
 Eastern Daily Press, 05 March 1907
 The Sportsman, 19 March 1907
©The Football History Boys, 2020
(All pictures not owned by TFHB and borrowed kindly)