Billy Meredith: The First Football Superstar?

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The 'other' game

If rugby was the game of south Wales at the turn of the twentieth century, then football was the game of the north.  The Football Association of Wales had been set up in Wrexham in 1876 and when Wales played its first international against Scotland shortly afterwards, the team was made up of players drawn from the north-east.  The Druids of Ruabon, Wrexham and Oswestry were particularly well represented in those early years and when the Welsh Cup was first contested in 1877-78, Wrexham were the winners. 

It is little surprise, therefore, that the player often named as the first football superstar, Billy Meredith, came from Chirk, near Wrexham.   Born William Henry Meredith in 1874, the lean, slim, winger was to make a name for himself playing most of his professional career for rivals Manchester City and Manchester United.

Becoming a household name

The son of a mining family, Meredith began working at the Black Park Colliery as a pony driver and ‘hutcher’ when he was twelve years old.  He joined the ranks of his hometown’s successful first team, winning the Welsh Cup in 1894.  After a brief spell as a semi-professional at Wrexham he began his professional career with Second Division Northwich Victoria before moving to Manchester City in late 1894. 

He continued to work under ground during the week until 1896 when the club insisted that he give up his colliery job and concentrate on his footballing career.

In 1895 Manchester City entered the First Division and it was at this level that Meredith really made his name.  He was a popular player and one of City’s most consistent, hardly missing a game; during his first five years at the club, he missed only seven matches. Playing with a toothpick in his mouth to aid concentration, Meredith earned the adoration of the fans and huge crowds came to watch him play.  While at Manchester City, he won the Second Division twice, in 1899 and 1903, and captained the side to FA Cup victory in 1904. 

1904 began as a good year for Meredith.  In the run-up to the FA Cup final his performances for Manchester City earned him the title of the country’s most popular player in a poll run by the Manchester-based Sunday newspaper, The Umpire.  Meredith was the run-away winner and received a £10 prize.

Scandal and recovery

However, later that year, Meredith suffered an enormous blow to his career.  Accused by an Aston Villa player of bribing him £10 to throw a match, he was banned from the game for eighteen months, along with other members of the Manchester City side.  It is said that he was lucky not to have been banned for life.

Many thought that this might have ended the winger’s career but he was signed by rivals Manchester United in 1906, while still banned from the game, and made his debut on 1 January 1907.  He soon became a firm favourite at United and won two League Championship medals with the side in 1908 and 1911 and the FA Cup in 1909.

After the First World War, Meredith returned to Manchester City where he continued to play into his fiftieth year.  In 1924 he played for City in the FA Cup, scoring against Brighton and ending his career in a semi-final defeat against Newcastle at the age of 49 years and 245 days, making him one of the oldest outfield players ever to play in the FA Cup.

Welsh International

Alongside his glittering club career, Meredith earned 48 caps for Wales and scored 11 goals.  This could well have been more but he was often not released by his club to play at international level. 

Meredith was, in many ways, ahead of his time.  As well as being one of the first football superstars, he had a rather modern view on exercise and diet in the sporting game.  He took great care to exercise and develop the correct muscles, treating any ailments carefully with herbal remedies.  He was also tee-total and a non-smoker unlike most of his fellow players.  Also a staunch union man, Meredith was a leading figure in the fledgling Players’ Union during the 1909/10 season and was briefly banned, along with other union members, until the matter was resolved with the Football Association. 

After retiring, Billy Meredith became coach for the short-lived Manchester Central.

 Meredith died in Withington, Manchester, in 1958 at the age of 83, the same year as the Munich air disaster.