Welsh winger Billy Meredith (1874-1958) could hardly have looked more different from today’s Premier League stars. Haggard and gaunt in appearance, his ‘sparse, erect body’, one writer observed, ‘was perched on legs so spindly they did not look capable of supporting a piano stool’. He also played with a toothpick in his mouth, a modified habit from his previous job as a miner when he had constantly chewed tobacco.
Yet Meredith became one of football’s first sporting celebrities. He was an idol in his native north Wales and in Manchester, where he played for both City and United. He also advertised his own brand of boots, appeared in films and on stage and socialised with music-hall stars.
Known popularly as the ‘wizard of dribble’, Meredith had extraordinary ball control which allowed him to wriggle past opponents in tight spaces. He wasn’t blessed with great speed but made up for it with his balance and agility and the accuracy of his crossing. He also scored freely, amassing 470 goals during his career; a quality that Meredith believed elevated him above the wingers of the 1940s and 1950s.
Billy Meredith is pictured with his honours as a professional footballer.
Meredith’s career was long and distinguished. He played his first professional match for Manchester City in 1894 and his last – an FA Cup Semi-Final – for the same club in 1924, just short of his 50th birthday. In total, he claimed to have appeared in over 1,500 matches, winning the First Division title twice with Manchester United (1907/08 and 1910/11) and the FA Cup with City in 1904 and United in 1909. He was picked over 70 times for his country but only played 48 due to his club refusing to release him. But he was able to help Wales secure its first Home International Championship in 1907, repeating the feat in 1920.
Meredith had no time for the football authorities. In 1905, he was suspended for a full season for an alleged attempt to bribe the Aston Villa captain prior to a championship decider. City refused to pay him during his suspension so he moved to United.
Here, along with militant team-mates such as Charlie Roberts and Sandy Turnbull, he helped to establish the Players’ Union, campaigning to increase wages and loosen contractual restrictions. In 1909 he was a key spokesman for United’s ‘Outcasts FC’. Roberts coined the name when the whole team refused to resign from the Union and were briefly suspended by the FA, and locked out of training.
During the First World War, Meredith fell out with the United board again over delayed payments from his benefit match back and demanded to leave, eventually returning to City on a free transfer in 1921. He was now 47, the goals had run dry and he was barely picked in his final seasons as a professional.
But Meredith remained a well-known personality and a hero to many. He regularly discussed the game with former colleagues and regulars at the Manchester pub he ran in his retirement. And according to one reporter, he could still be found kicking a ball around the cellar.
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