Daily Mail

Football’s first superstar who took fight to the game’s elite and worked at same pit as my grandad

- Herbert Ian

ACoNNeCTio­N back to home forged an interest for me in Billy Meredith, a footballer whose name is unknown to most yet who was a force of nature in his day, rising from a North Wales pit village to become a household name at the time of the sport’s first commercial explosion.

Meredith mined the same Black Park Colliery, at Chirk, where my grandfathe­r later worked, and it was with a firebrand’s belief in the rights of working people — be they footballer­s or colliery workers — that he became football’s first superstar; the match-winner for both Manchester United and Manchester City when each landed the first of many trophies.

he fought for a fair player wage and the right to transfer between clubs, taking on a powerful edwardian establishm­ent that was determined to limit the money workers took from a game the aristocrac­y had invented.

it had been a struggle to really get to the core of this man, whose face dominated billboards the length and breadth of the land in the early 1900s, until the National Football Museum, knowing of my interest, got in touch to say they had taken possession of what they were calling the ‘Billy Meredith scrapbook’.

This large, brown, untitled book didn’t immediatel­y scream significan­ce when i arrived last week to view it at the museum’s brilliant Preston archive, within Deepdale. Yet it was a treasure trove — page after page of newspaper clippings, glued in by Meredith, we have to presume, and providing a snapshot of his passions and preoccupat­ions.

The book chronicles his greatest performanc­es and the rivals he most admired, though it is his wish for players’ rights — his belief they were entitled to as much as the other creative artists of the day — which shouts out from its pages. Countless cuttings chart the fight which Meredith led to form a players’ union.

‘ enthusiast­ic meeting in Manchester’ is the headline on a report of the summit, convened by Meredith at the city’s imperial hotel, to ‘establish a football union not only for the men who have made themselves a name but also the less profession­al’. Another meeting ‘lasted from 3.15 until 5.30. Meredith was in the chair’. he was ‘ the individual­ist and yet the cooperator’, stated another report he had kept.

his fight to form what remains the Profession­al Footballer­s’ Associatio­n was hard won. The FA resisted and the game was on the brink of strike action before Meredith’s immense national popularity — and the support of team-mates — saw him win out.

he was, by all accounts, a complicate­d individual. he could be thin-skinned and temperamen­tal. he struggled with modernity, averse to driving the family car, according to his daughter Winifred, whose memories of her father are preserved on taped interviews which the archivists also located for me.

But it is not difficult to imagine what a central role Meredith would have wanted to play in the biggest contempora­ry issue for the players’ union — the fight for greater help for former players struggling with dementia. And what he would have had to say about the union’s track record in providing it.

The picture has improved. There is a pot of money now, which is finding its way to the right places. But since i asked here, a month ago, how PFA chief executive Maheta Molango could justify taking a new non- executive directorsh­ip role at Sampdoria, on top of his £650,000 annual salary, while ex-pros are struggling, half a dozen or more families whose fathers and husbands are living with dementia have got in touch to say they long for a PFA leadership which will lead, proselytis­e and campaign on this issue.

Molango isn’t the only PFA union leader who sees no conflict of interest in being a football management boss. ebru Koksal, a PFA non- executive director, is working as an advisor to Mercury/13, an investment fund buying women’s football clubs.

ex-players’ families have been left to do the campaignin­g and for a sense of what it entails, i recommend the new book No-brainer by Mike Amos, which traces that struggle through the case of the late Bill Gates, formerly of Middlesbro­ugh, whose wife Judith leads the campaign group head Safe Football, which she co-founded.

Meredith did not enjoy the riches which should have come with his fame. he died in relative poverty in April 1958, two months after the Munich air crash, with United and the nation still in a state of grief. The obituaries were sparse. Fewer than 100 attended his funeral. he was buried in an unmarked grave in Manchester’s Southern Cemetery which had seemed lost until it was relocated in 2001, and the players’ union he had establishe­d undertook to pay for a headstone.

‘Fondest memories of Meredith, Billy, Manchester City — United — Wales’ is the stone’s plain message, telling only a fraction of his story.

‘Football was not a real job, in the way that the pit was a job,’ Meredith reflected in later life. ‘ But the wealthy, sitting on their velvet cushions, were taking from it while we, the entertaine­rs, were giving.’

The scrapbook attests to what a crusading spirit — a desire to provide a voice for those lacking one — looks and sounds like.

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 ?? ?? Firebrand: the mighty Billy Meredith helped to form the PFA
Firebrand: the mighty Billy Meredith helped to form the PFA

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