Club News

City DNA #42: Toothpicks, brilliance and scandal

BILLY'S BOOTS: Billy Meredith (light kit)
Today, we have Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling.

Stellar talents who are adored by youngsters and admired around the world, but back in the late Nineteenth Century or early 1900s, City had a player who could arguably have been one of the world’s best.

It is impossible to tell, given the embryonic state of football both here and overseas, but in Billy Meredith, City had a superstar in the making.

READ: Unbelievable: The Paul Moulden Story

READ: The origins of 'Typical City'

Meredith may have played for City for the first time more than a century ago, but his legend lives on to this day.

A somewhat controversial character – he is ranked by many alongside the great Sir Stanley Matthews in stature and was a magnet for football fans and the media in his day.

In many ways, he was a prototype for the world brands of today – think Messi, Beckham and Ronaldo and, relatively speaking, you wouldn’t be far out.

Bandy-legged and invariably chewing a toothpick while he played (not recommended, kids!) - Meredith was a skilful box-of-tricks and the scourge of many an Edwardian defender.

An immensely talented right winger, he could pinpoint a cross for a forward or cut inside and lash the ball past the keeper from distance himself if the mood took him – and often did.

It was all a world away from his humble, modest beginnings.

He began life in the small mining village of Chirk in North Wales and from the age of 12, he was a pit pony driver who played football for Chirk in his spare time.

Overt time, word spread of this precocious Welsh talent and eventually, he signed for Northwich Victoria to help make ends meet, with the Cheshire club covering his expenses and paying a modest fee for his services.

Northwich were struggling in Division Two and an a former Chirk team-mate Di Jones, now at Bolton Wanderers, tried to convince the club to sign Meredith, but his slight frame put Wanderers off and City moved in.

There are all kinds of stories of how City went to great lengths to sign the Welshman, including manager Joshua Parlby and Lawrence Furniss travelling to his village and rowing across a river – only to be ‘encouraged’ to leave by suspicious locals.

When the City representatives did finally make contact, they convinced Meredith to sign, though legend has it he wanted to remain in Chirk to begin with a so cycled the near-70-mile journey to Hyde Road and then cycled back!

If that's true... wow.

He apparently did the trip for a year before settling in Withington in South Manchester.

Meredith was an instant hit and would prove to be the driving force in City’s formative years and was integral to the Club winning its first trophy.

The 1904 FA Cup final was held at Crystal Palace in London and Meredith wasn’t about to let this showpiece event pass him by and on 23 minutes, he struck what would be the only goal of the game to further enhance his reputation.

Illustrations of Meredith featured regularly in newspapers, he appeared on cigarette cards tucked in packets and attracted big crowds wherever he went.

With 151 goals for City, he is among our all-time top scorers, but his first spell would end in controversy and bitterness. He was involved in an alleged bribe and illegal payment scandal that rocked the Club to its foundations

Meredith, a teetotaller and campaigner for better pay and better rights for both miners and footballers, always protested his innocence and was dismayed when, in his eyes, City didn’t stand by him.

As a direct result, he eventually joined Manchester United, instead helping the Reds to the Division One title - before City had managed the feat - as he channelled his grievance into silverware for his new club.

He also organised the first meeting of what would eventually become the PFA in 1907.

Yet Meredith, despite the past grievances, felt he had unfinished business with City and, with time healing old wounds, he rejoined the Blues in 1921.

Meredith was in his mid-forties by this point and past his best, but it was testament to his professionalism and fitness that he managed another 32 appearances for City and also got to play at the Club’s new home, Maine Road.

Not surprisingly, Meredith holds the record for being the oldest footballer to turn out for the Blues. He was aged just 120 days short of his 50th birthday in his last game for the club – a 2–0 defeat to Newcastle United in an FA Cup semi-final.

A true legend who should have achieved so much more with City, but nonetheless, a pioneer who made a huge impact on the game both on and off the pitch.

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