Born in 1874, it is often said that Billy Meredith was football's first superstar. Carrying a trademark toothpick between his lips during games, the 'Welsh Wizard' was the leading light of his day, pulling in the crowds with his skill and impudence until his retirement at the age of 49.
The Guardian wrote in 1958 of the outside right's "popularity, eminence and mastery of his art" and of "the famous Meredithian back-heel, the game's most joyous red herring", while the National Football Museum speaks of "a popularity akin to that enjoyed by music hall stars". He was seen as the Stanley Matthews of the game's formative years, and established himself as one of the most important players in the early history of both Manchester City and Manchester United.
Beyond the on-field success, though, Meredith was embroiled in controversy, suspended for bribing an opponent and again for receiving illegal payments from City before being banned, along with his United team-mates, when he led the Players' Union in a fight against the Football Association.
He lived his early years in Chirk, a small mining town in North Wales, and worked at the local colliery from the age of 12. He may well have spent his whole life down the pit had his schoolmaster, who was also a Welsh FA treasurer, not encouraged him to focus on football; Meredith was to sign up with Chirk Amateur Athletic Association FC. When the miners went on strike after an enforced pay-cut, he supplemented his income by signing for English side Northwich Victoria.
However, Northwich thought Meredith "too bloody slow" and he struggled to meet their expectations. "Apparently they saw no great purpose in graceful movement and the bemusing of opposing full backs by subtle means when a kick and a rush was all that was required," The Guardian said in 1978. "He was also, they decided, a show-off, with his running outside the touchline with the ball partnering him from just inside and his chewing of a toothpick."
Northwich withdrew from the Football League in 1894, but the newly-rebranded Manchester City recognised his potential and set out to prise the 19-year-old away from his life in Chirk, where he continued to work in the pit and represent the local team. City's attempt to sign him met with opposition from the boy's mother and the locals and, The Guardian reported, "angry townsfolk, roused by the thought of a local genius being sold for alien gold, seized one of the deputation and threw him into a horse trough". His mother apparently told the City representatives: "It is all very well for you gentlemen to leave your big cities and come to our villages to steal our boys away. Our boys are happy and healthy, satisfied with their work and innocent amusements. If Billy takes my advice he will stick to his work and play football for his own amusement when work is finished."
Meredith, though, seized his chance. He joined the City officials on the train back to Manchester and, though he insisted on keeping his job at the colliery, he flourished. On his home debut, in the League's first Manchester derby, he scored both his side's goals in a 5-2 defeat to Newton Heath, and he eventually focused on football full-time, becoming professional in January 1895. He was City's top scorer in both 1894-95 and 1895-96, swiftly establishing himself as the star attraction, and guided the club to automatic promotion in 1898-99.
In 1904, City set up an FA Cup final meeting with Bolton Wanderers at Crystal Palace in London. Prior to the game, the Great Central Railway took the opportunity to decorate the streets of Manchester with posters proclaiming in giant letters that City would beat Bolton; it was illustrated with a picture of Meredith scoring the winning goal, firing the ball into the top left-hand corner of the net after leaving the Bolton defenders for dead. "Billy Meredith secures the Cup," the poster announced. "He wants you to see the match and travel in comfort by the Great Central Railway's Cheap Excursions."
Bolton captain Dai Davies saw the poster and exhorted his team-mates to ensure the predictions did not become a reality, but his efforts were in vain. CB Fry, the multitalented former Corinthian captain, wrote in the Daily Express match report: "The winning and only goal was scored by Meredith about 20 minutes from the start. He took a long pass from Gillespie, outpaced a halfback, eluded a back, and scored with a deliberately placed shot." Placed, as the poster had predicted, into the top left-hand corner of the net.
The comic book fairytale did not last. On the final day of the 1904-05 season, second-placed City travelled to fourth-placed Aston Villa needing a victory to press home their title claims, but they lost 3-2 in a match that involved fighting and literal mud-slinging. The subsequent FA investigation into the violence saw Villa captain Alec Leake claim that Meredith had, seemingly jokingly, offered him £10 to throw the match.
The Football Association banned Meredith from August 4, 1905, to April 30, 1906, which constituted a season-long absence. The player told the Daily Mirror shortly after the ban was imposed that he was "perfectly innocent" and added: "Would any man risk his reputation for a paltry £10? Certainly not. I should not be such a mug to ruin my future and blight my character. If I had not been a Welshman it would have been all right."
The affair grew increasingly undignified. During his suspension, Meredith "persistently and improperly" requested that City pay him his £6 weekly wages - £2 above the salary cap - in addition to win bonuses. Meredith threatened the club of the consequences should they fail to meet his demands but, in February 1906, City notified the FA of the player's blackmail attempt. It was an unwise strategy, and Meredith was to claim that he had made the £10 bribe on behalf of the club's secretary-manager, Tom Maley, and with the consent of several players. "I was only the spokesman of others equally guilty," he wrote in a letter to the Athletic News. He also credited City's success to "the fact that the club put aside the rule that no player should be paid more than £4 a week".
Meredith was made available for transfer and in May 1906 moved to Manchester United, signing for £500 at the age of 29. Two weeks later, City were to pay the price for their former player's allegations.
Prompted by Meredith's claims, an FA investigation found that City had "for years systematically broken the rules of the Football Association by very unscrupulous means". Life bans were handed out to the club's chairman and secretary-manager, temporary bans were issued to two other directors and others were ordered to resign. Additionally, 17 players - Meredith included - were fined and suspended until January 1907. As a result, Meredith was unable to make his United debut until the new year.
Still bitter at the authorities and having been part of the short-lived Association Footballers' Union, he was persistently vocal about his desire to form a new union to fight the 'retain and transfer' system, which gave clubs control over players' destinies, and £4 maximum wage. With the backing of his United team-mates, the dream was realised and, in December 1907, he chaired the first meeting of the Players' Union, and the FA consented to its formation at a meeting the following March.
On the field, Manchester United enjoyed great success, winning the title for the first time in 1908 and their first FA Cup in 1909. It was in the summer of 1909, though, that the Players' Union pushed the Football Association too far when backing a player in dispute with his club over wages. The FA subsequently told players that they must withdraw from the Union or else their registration forms would be cancelled and they would be unable to play for their clubs.
The drama of the negotiations was covered day by day in the national press over a period of several months. Hundreds of Union members withdrew to continue their careers, but the Manchester United players in particular stood firm as the FA refused to give up the maximum wage. Clubs with a significant Union presence were forced to seek out amateur players to bolster numbers or else cancel matches. The banned United players still trained locally, and when a photographer turned up, captain Charlie Roberts made up a sign that read 'The Outcasts FC'.
In November 1909, Meredith's battle was brought to an end when the Union members were balloted as to whether they would remain affiliated to the GFTU - the federation for specialist unions - and the bid to continue the fight was defeated by an estimated majority of two-thirds. "I confess that the bulk of players have not shown much pluck in the matter, but the clubs who have led the players forward and who voted solidly in favour of remaining within the federation have the satisfaction of knowing that they behaved like men," Meredith said. The Players' Union would continue, its members suspensions removed, and a vote was later held on the abolition of the maximum wage, but the players had signalled a willingness to compromise and the momentum was lost. It was not until 1961, when the Players' Union had become the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), that the wage restrictions were finally lifted.
Manchester United were able to move forwards, at least, and in the 1910-11 season Meredith helped them to their second title. Despite his off-field activities, his legend at both Manchester clubs remained unsullied and, in 1912, a benefit was played between the two sides at Old Trafford that saw 50,000 fans attend and an estimated £2,000 raised.
He was 38 at that time, but far from finished. He played on even after the First World War brought football to a halt in 1915, and in 1921, at 47 years old, he returned to Manchester City, reuniting with his former United manager Ernest Mangnall. He made his final appearance in an FA Cup semi-final defeat to Newcastle United in 1924, aged 49 years and eight months. "This lean, finely-drawn super-veteran, with his grey-streaked hair, was a favourite with the crowd, and he did a few smart things to justify the cheers so generously accorded him," the Daily Express's match report said, "but it was painfully apparent that his day for strenuous football is over. The hurly burly of Cup tie warfare is not for players of fifty, no matter how great they have shown themselves in the past."
Meredith retired as one of the finest players the game had seen. He was unable to make the impact he would have wished for Wales - "What a time I should have had if I had been an Englishman! I'm sick of being on the losing side," he once said - but more than made up for it with his performances for his clubs, scoring 470 goals in his 1,568 matches.
In retirement, he starred in the 1926 film The Ball of Fortune before taking charge of a pub. He died in 1958 at the age of 83, just two months after the Munich air disaster that brought tragedy to both Manchester clubs.