Chapter Five - Chirk's Billy Meredith
William Henry Meredith was born in Chirk on 30th July 1874. He was the youngest of a large family who moved to Chirk from Mid Wales the year of his birth.
It was during his schooldays that he came across one of the pioneers of Welsh Football, T.E.Thomas. Thomas was schoolmaster at Chirk School and it was he who had a great influence on the footballing career of Meredith.
Thomas used to stress the
value of ball practice. Many a time in the schoolyard, Thomas would
place a penny in the far end of the yard. The boy who kicked the ball
nearest to the penny, would keep it as the prize. Thomas also stressed
the importance of keeping the ball on the ground. During practice in the
schoolyard, anyone who kicked the ball over the wall would be sent
straight back to lessons as punishment!
Meredith started playing for Chirk Reserves when he was 16. After a couple of seasons in the Reserves he stepped up and made his first team debut in August 1892 in the semi-professional Combination League. His first season saw him star as Chirk reached the final of the Welsh Cup were they lost 2-1 to Wrexham in a game played at Oswestry.
The following season saw the miners strike. Chirk withdrew from the Combination League and joined the Welsh League. Meredith, along with other Chirk players, moved clubs to remain in the Combination League. After the strike had ended, Meredith returned to his beloved Chirk and played out the season.
In 1894 Meredith shared his talents between Chirk, Wrexham and Northwich Victoria. He led Chirk to their 5th Welsh Cup when they defeated Westminster Rovers 2-0 in a game played at Ruabon.
By this time, Meredith was a wanted man. All the big North West Professional clubs were after his services but he remained loyal to Chirk. Bill Owen, who was Meredith’s mentor in the Chirk team, had experienced the “big-time” with a spell at Newton Heath (later known as Manchester United) and his words of wisdom to Meredith proved to be invaluable in the years to come.
Former Chirk players, Jos Davies and Di (Lot) Jones were now playing for Ardwick (later known as Manchester City) and Bolton Wanderers respectively. They both made strong recommendations to their clubs to obtain Meredith’s signature.
Meredith started the 1894/1895 season playing for Chirk in the Welsh League but it was clear that he had outgrown the standard that the Welsh League had to offer. Indeed Meredith scored 11 goals in 3 games for Chirk and the queue for Meredith’s signature grew by the day. The Professional game beckoned. In November 1894 Ardwick signed Meredith on Amateur forms.
On his home debut against archrivals Newton Heath, Meredith scored 2 goals to make an immediate impact.
Meredith continued to work at Black Park and commuted to Manchester on match days. However, early in 1895, after constant pressure from Ardwick officials, he gave up his job in the pit to concentrate on football.
Meredith continued to travel between Chirk and Manchester and he occasionally turned out for Chirk in midweek matches for the following few years.
Chirk became the focal point of his life and every close season he would return to his roots and relax. His relationship with local girl Ellen Negus was getting stronger and his love for her and Chirk saw him return home at every possible opportunity.
In his second season at Ardwick (1895), at the tender age of 21, Meredith was appointed Captain. He had become a well-known celebrity in the footballing circles. His trademark was a toothpick, which was evident at every game, a Charlie Chaplin moustache and his long, spindly legs.
He won the first of 48 Welsh Caps in a 2-2 draw against Ireland on 16th March 1895 in Belfast.
Meredith was now earning good wages - £3 a week during the football season and £2 during the close season.
During the first 5 years at Manchester City, Meredith missed only 7 league games, 3 of these because he was playing for his country and another because his train from Chirk was held up in fog!
During this period he became City’s top scorer – scoring 89 goals in 170 games. He helped City win the Division 2 Championship in 1899 scoring 29 goals in 33 league games – an astonishing strike rate of 1 goal in every 1.14 games.
It was therefore fitting that Meredith should score City’s first ever Division 1 league goal when he scored in the 4-3 defeat at Blackburn. The following week City made their home debut in the top flight when Derby were the visitors. Meredith marked the occasion with 2 goals in the 4-0 victory.
In 1901, Meredith married his childhood sweetheart from Chirk, Ellen Negus. They set up home in the Belle Vue district of Manchester in a house supplied by the club.
Meredith was now earning £6 a week, more than double that of a factory worker or coalminer. In 1902, another former Chirk player, Di “Lot” Jones, who had joined City from Bolton on Meredith’s recommendation in their promotion year, suffered a badly gashed knee in a pre-season friendly fixture. A week later, Jones, who was 31, was dead – the result of a septic wound that had not been detected. Everyone at City was shocked at this terrible tragedy, none more than Meredith. Jones had been one of Meredith’s heroes in the Chirk team that won the Welsh Cup in the late 1880’s and he often looked to “Lot” for professional guidance in his early days at City.
In 1904 Meredith captained
City to their first ever FA Cup final and scored the only goal of the
game in the 1-0 victory over Bolton.
The relationship between Meredith and City had become strained and this led to a free transfer across the City to archrivals Manchester United.
He made his United debut on News Years Day in 1907 when his suspension had been lifted. Later that year Meredith became a founder member of The Players Union. He took the Chair at their inaugural meeting and went on to become an ambassador for their cause. It was probably his experiences at Man City that led him to believe that the professional footballer desperately needed a union to look after their interests. He was quoted as saying, “ What is more reasonable than that our plea that the footballer, with his uncertain career, should have the best money he can earn? If I can earn £7 a week, should I be debarred from receiving it?” This was obviously a dig at the maximum wage ceiling of £4 for professional footballers.
Meredith became a “King”
amongst his fellow footballers but less popular with the football
authorities. He continued to support the players union his entire career
and was an inspiration behind the movement.
In 1908 Meredith was instrumental in United winning their first Division One Championship and he played a leading role when United won the FA Cup the following season with a narrow 1-0 win over Bristol City. Meredith was allowed to take the Cup home to Chirk to show his family and friends the prized possession.
The Manchester United team that won the FA Cup for the first time in their history in 1909. Meredith (middle left) was reckoned to be the difference between his side and Bristol City as he won his second FA Cup winners medal.
United won the Championship for the second time in 1911. Although now 37 years old, Meredith played a vital role in securing the title and played in most games.
In 1912 he was awarded a testimonial game and he chose to play Manchester rivals and former club Manchester City. In April over 39,000 fans turned up to pay tribute to the City’s greatest ever footballer. The game brought in receipts of approx. £1,400.
During the 1912/1913 season Meredith was dropped for the first time in his career. He was not impressed. The relationship between the club and Meredith soon soured and his days looked numbered at United.
At the outbreak of the First World War, league football ceased. During the war years Meredith was allowed to make guest appearances for both Man City and Stalybridge Celtic.
It was at the end of hostilities that Meredith was to put an end to the England hoodoo. Wales entertained England in what was called a Victory International on 11th October 1911 at Cardiff.
Wales were triumphant with Meredith scoring one of their goals. Unfortunately the authorities did not recognize the fixture as a “Full” International – much to the disgust of Meredith.
However the following year (1920), Meredith, who was playing his 48th and final game for his country in his 46th year, put the record straight when he led his beloved country to a 2-1 win over England on their home soil in London. Wales’s goals were ironically scored by 2 former Chirk players - Stan Davies (Preston) and Dick Richards (Wolverhampton).
His International career ended on a high and had spanned over four decades. He is still the oldest British International player having played his last game at the age of 45 years 8 months.
In 1921, Meredith returned to Man City as player-coach. He made 25 league appearances for City in the 1921/1922 season. In 1923, City moved to a new ground Maine Road. In March 1924 a record crowd of 76,166 saw Meredith play in an FA Cup Quarter-Final against Cardiff. The game ended in a 1-1 draw but in the replay Meredith supplied the cross from which City scored the games only goal to book a place in the Semi-Final.
The Saturday before the final, Meredith played his last Football League game in a 2-2 draw with Preston. The Semi-Final proved to be a disappointing end to an illustrious career. City’s 2-0 defeat at the hands of Newcastle was to be Meredith’s last competitive game at the grand old age of 49 years 8 months. He remains the oldest ever player to have played in a FA Cup Semi-Final.
It was somehow ironic that Newcastle were the opponents in his last game - Thirty years previous Meredith had made his City debut against…. Newcastle.
Meredith returned to Man United in 1931 as a coach/scout. He would remain closely associated with both Manchester clubs for the rest of his life.
Although a teetotaller, he became a publican and later a tenant at the Stretford Road Hotel. He was financially comfortable but never wealthy.
Meredith, now in his fifties, continued to play charity matches and returned to Chirk on more than one occasion to grace the field were he started his career.
His love for the game of football and his status in the game were widely known and he rarely missed a Wales game. He would travel with the team as a VIP and introduce himself to the new caps before wishing them luck on their debuts. This was much appreciated by the younger generation and this tradition continued into his seventies.
Meredith became a radio celebrity and also a guest speaker at functions throughout the North West and North Wales. His frank views on football were not always welcomed with open arms but Meredith had always been controversial throughout his career and he was not going to change now.
In one interview, just
before the end of his playing days, Meredith told the secret of his
long, distinguished career:
Meredith’s financial plight in the 1940’s, due mainly to his failure to make any significant investments during his playing days, saw a number of benefit games set up to assist. One such game took place at Glyn Ceiriog in 1947. To publicise the game, permission was given to place a large photograph of Meredith on the “Pretty Gates” at the entrance to Chirk Castle.
Meredith remained close to everyone’s hearts and he was invited as a guest to Manchester United’s FA Cup Final appearance in 1948 when they played Blackpool. Uniteds thrilling 4-2 victory over a side containing the present day Meredith, Stanley Matthews, was their first FA Cup final triumph since Meredith helped them lift the trophy 39 years before in 1909.
In the mid 1950’s, Meredith had 2 spells in hospital as his health deteriorated and after a long illness he died on 19th April 1958, 2 months after many of his friends from Man United and the Press were killed during the Munich Air Disaster.
Meredith’s career stats are clouded with uncertainty. There are many calculated guesses on how many matches he played in during his illustrious career. But it is almost certain that he played in at least 1,500 games during his 34 years playing career – an average of over 40 games per season – Not bad for a player who played until he was nearly 50!
He made 367 league appearances for Man City scoring 146 goals. During his 303 league appearances for Man Utd, he scored only 35 goals but was played in a wider role and created hundreds of goals from his centres. He gained 48 Welsh Caps, scoring 11 goals.
Meredith seen posing with
some of the trophies and caps he won
The only known commemorations of Meredith’s achievements are a road named after him near the present Man City stadium at Maine Road (Billy Meredith Road), a tribute to him at the Old Trafford Football museum, a plaque in his honour unveiled at the opening of the Chirk A.A.A. Sports & Social Club in 1972 and similar at Northwich Victoria in their Players Lounge in 1998.
In July of this year Chirk A.A.A Football Club and Chirk Town Council decided to recognize the achievements of Meredith by unveiling two plaques in his honour. Chirk A.A.A. committee member Deryn Poppit was the inspiration behind the project that saw a bronze plaque being placed in the Millenium Gardens in the centre of Chirk and a replica zinc plaque sited in the Chirk A.A.A. Sports & Social Club. Both plaques were unveiled by Meredith’s daughter Winifrede who was guest of honour at the unveiling ceremony that also included a friendly fixture between two of Meredith's clubs Chirk and Northwich Victoria.
Reproduced from the book