In the week of Ryan Giggs’ birthday — many happy returns, sir — I took the opportunity to delve into the history books and investigate the original Welsh wizard; a jinking genius whose longevity puts even the greying Ryan to shame, who played with a trademark toothpick poking out from under a proud moustache, and whose arrival at United would prove the catalyst for the first of eighteen titles (and counting).
And it’s all thanks to Manchester City.
Billy Meredith had scored what was, for a winger, a quite ludicrous 129 goals in 339 games for United’s cross-town rivals, inspiring them to the second division title in 1903, then a runners-up spot in the first division the following year, along with the club’s first FA Cup. Yet, following a bribery scandal in 1905, Meredith, who always denied the allegations, was banned by the FA from representing City for eighteen months.
The club stated that they would not pay Meredith during his ban, and he retaliated by exposing City’s regular evasion of the maximum wage rules. The club was plunged into turmoil and, following a number of resignations at board level, placed most of the squad up for auction. United, taking advantage of City’s wish not to see their players move south, were able to arrange a preferential deal that saw Meredith, along with three others, move across the city in December 1906. He made his debut on January 1, 1907, in a 1-0 win over Aston Villa.
The impact was immediate: United, who had been pootling along in mid-table, won 11 of their last 17 games and finished runners-up. The following season, United — managed by Ernest Mangnall, captained by the great Charlie Roberts, and inspired by Meredith — took the title with a record 52 points (2 for a win; 75 in today’s money). This included an early-season run of ten consecutive victories in which United scored 37 goals, including a 6-1 rout of reigning champions Newcastle United.
A flying outside-right, Meredith was, during his time in red, more of a creator than a goalscorer. While he only scored a disappointing (by his own high standards) 35 in 303 appearances, his preternatural close control, dribbling ability and precision crossing meant United’s forward line could gorge themselves. He was, in turn, the ideal foil for Roberts, whose long-range passing from centre-half meant Meredith was never starved of the ball. Football writer Mark Metcalf, who has chronicled United’s first title season in forensic detail, states that the Welshman would have been “a superstar in any era”, and puts him in contention for the hotly debated All-Time United XI.
After the title, Meredith helped United to the 1909 FA Cup and a second title in 1911, spending a total of ten season with United. A dispute over wages saw him leave United in 1921 and return to City, where he was reunited with Mangnall (who had overseen United’s move to Old Trafford and then jumped ship. Mangnall, incidentally, is the only man to have managed both of Manchester’s main clubs). Despite being a compulsive pipe smoker he played until the grand old age of 47, an age that will hopefully see Giggs firmly ensconced in a dugout somewhere.
Modern football is, increasingly, no country for old men.
There is a great tradition of talent on the wings at Manchester United; from Charlie Mitten and George Best under Busby, through Jesper Olsen in the 1980s, onto Ferguson’s wide-boys: Andrei Kanchelskis; Lee Sharpe; the ageless Giggs; Cristiano Ronaldo; maybe, one day, Nani. Billy Meredith was the first in this proud lineage and he had, inarguably, the finest facial hair of them all.
Credit explained? I wonder if we should show this to the Glazers!