by Stuart Moriarty-Patten
4 August 1904: Manchester City’s Billy Meredith suspended by the F.A. for offering a bribe to Alex Leake of Aston Villa.
The 1904/05 season saw a thrilling climax in the English First Division as on the last Saturday of the season three teams all still had a chance of winning the title. If Man City were going to have a chance to win their first ever title they needed to beat fourth-placed Aston Villa at Villa Park. In the end they lost a bad tempered game 3-2 and finished the season in third place behind champions Newcastle and Everton.
The game had seen a number of running battles, physical and verbal, throughout its 90 minutes and had ended with a fight between the Villa captain Alex Leake and Man City forward Sandy Turnbull. Later in an FA inquiry into the trouble Leake dropped the bombshell that before the game Man City’s winger Billy Meredith had offered him £10 to throw the game.
Meredith had been with Man City since 1894 and it is often said that he was the game’s first superstar. In 1904 when Umpire magazine ran a competition to find the game’s most liked player, Meredith won the voting easily. He had a languid style about him and would chew a toothpick while playing after the laundry had complained about the stains on his shirt from his chewing tobacco. This however did not detract from his skills and he would often leave an entire defence on the wrong foot with a trademark back heel or skin an opposing defender while he himself was behind the touchline and managing to keep the ball in play. He was a firm favourite with the Man City crowd having endeared himself to them immediately after he scored twice on his home debut in 1894 against Newton Heath (now of course Manchester United) in an otherwise disappointing 5-2 defeat. He was City’s top scorer in 1895 and 1896.
In 1904 City met Bolton Wanderers in the Cup Final at Crystal Palace. In the weeks before the game Great Central Railways used an imagined picture of Meredith scoring the winning goal to advertise their train services to London. Bolton’s captain had tried to use this image to stir up his players before the game, but ever the showman, Meredith actually did score the winning goal more or less as depicted on the poster.
After Leake’s accusations the FA ordered an immediate investigation. Meredith pleaded his innocence but the tribunal never took any evidence from him and he was fined and suspended for one year, with some having been calling for him to be suspended for life. After his suspension Man City refused to pay Meredith’s wages and he retaliated by exposing the fact that Man City had been making illegal payments to their players. At the time the wage limit was £4, and in his statement to the press Meredith said, “What was the secret of the success of the Manchester City team? In my opinion, the fact that the club put aside the rule that no player should receive more than four pounds a week… The team delivered the goods, the club paid for the goods delivered and both sides were satisfied.” In the last few years Man City had indeed seen an upsurge in their form and Meredith’s statement seemed to confirm what many had been whispering. They had narrowly missed out on the double the previous season when they finished runners-up in the league but on their first major honour in the FA Cup. Meredith also now admitted offering the bribe but in a letter to the Athletic News he stated that he “was only the spokesman of others equally guilty.”
After Meredith’s accusations Man City put him up for sale and he signed for Man United for £500. The FA launched an investigation into his claims and discovered that players had been receiving up to nearly twice the maximum wage in under the table payments, and the club was hit hard. They were fined £900, the manager of Tom Maley, who Meredith had said ordered him to make the bribe, and the former chairman, W. Forrest were banned from football for life and two other directors, Allison and Davies, were suspended for seven months. A further five directors were fired and a total of 17 players were fined, banned from playing for Man City again and suspended from playing for anyone until New Year’s Day 1907. Meredith himself was banned from football for 18 months.
As part of the repercussions Man City were forced to sell all their players in an auction held at Queen’s Hotel in Manchester with Man United benefitting greatly as they cheaply secured the services of Sandy Turnbull, Jimmy Bannister and Herbert Burgess from their neighbours. These players could not make their debut until their suspension was up and it was wondered if, after such a lengthy lay off, Meredith could recapture his form if not his appetite for the game. He laid any doubts to rest on his debut for Man United, ironically against Villa. He tormented the Villa defence all afternoon and played the cross that saw Turnbull get the winning goal of the game. With Meredith and the other Man City players in the side Man United successfully played an exciting style of attacking football that saw them take their first championship the next season. Perhaps just as importantly, Meredith’s feelings that he had been shabbily treated and his belief that footballers were underpaid considering the amount of money they helped generate he organised the first meeting of the Association Football Players’ Association Union at the Imperial Hotel, Manchester in 1907.
In 1921 at the age of 47 Meredith returned to Man City to be re-united with his manager at United Ernest Mangnall. He played until 1924 when he made his final appearance in a defeat to Newcastle in that season’s FA Cup semi-final at the age of 49 years and eight months. The Daily Express wrote, “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.” However the same paper also warned that, “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.” Taking the advice Meredith retired after thirty years of professional football, 740 matches and 176 goals, one of the finest players, if not one of the most controversial, of all time.