Manchester City’s recent difficulties with Carlos Tevez aren’t the first time they’ve had problems with their captain and star player. Not that there are many parallels to be drawn between Tevez’s recent travails and the Billy Meredith affair of 1906 – except perhaps one: the situation of the club. Then as now City were nouveau riche and were seen as gatecrashing football’s top table with big spending. The difference now, of course, is that such spending is perfectly legitimate – at least until Platini gets his way. Back in the early 1900s, there was a maximum wage in effect, introduced in 1901 at a top rate of £4 a week, and it was this that was to prove City’s undoing.

Meredith – the “Welsh Wizard” – was, by common consent, the greatest player of the age and one of football’s first superstars. Playing on the right wing, he’d scored 29 goals en route to City’s first promotion to the top division in 1899. There was a setback in a subsequent relegation, but under the management of club secretary Tom Maley – brother of Celtic’s Willie – City were promoted again in 1903 and in 1904 Meredith scored the only goal in the FA Cup final – the first major trophy to be won by either Manchester club. They finished second in the league that season too, and league officials, supsicious of City’s swift rise to prominence, investigated them for alleged illegal payments. They found some minor irregularities, but City carried on, and in 1905 they were challenging for the league once again. With one game left, they were behind leaders Newcastle only on goal average and needed a result away at Aston Villa to give themselves a chance should Newcastle slip up. Villa, for their part, had won the Cup the previous week but were out of league contention.

It was a tempestuous game, and at some point during it a fight broke out between Alec Leake, the Villa Captain, and Sandy Turnbull, a fiery Scotsman playing on City’s inside left. Villa won it 3-2 (as it turned out Newcastle won anyway, so City would have needed to win by an unlikely margin). The grievances, however, continued after the match, and Turnbull was dragged from the tunnel into the home dressing room and (allegedly) beaten up. The FA launched an inquiry. When it eventually reported back, it was Turnbull himself who was held accountable and banned for a month, while no action was taken against anyone at Villa. This increased City’s sense of being discriminated against as a team of newcomers and working class professionals, while Villa were footballing aristocracy.

By then, however, Turnbull’s punishment had become incidental, because the inquiry had gone off in a different direction and uncovered a much bigger story. Meredith himself was banned for a year for attempted bribery, having apparently been overheard by a gentleman of the public offering Leake ten pounds to throw the match. Leake, to be fair to him, had tried to play down the incident, admitting such a comment had been made but he had dismissed it as a joke, but the FA came down hard. Meredith was not to receive any pay for the year of his suspension, and was to be denied his benefit match. But for the club worse consequences still were to follow – the FA again sent officials up to Manchester to ensure that this part of Meredith’s punishment was enforced, and to oversee City’s finances.

By the following spring, a destitute Meredith cracked and revealed all. Having previously denied the bribery charge, he now admitted it and claimed it had been done at the behest of Maley and the rest of the team. He also lifted the lid on City’s whole system of finances – the amounts he and other players had been paid over and above the maximum wage, and the second bank account used to do it. The penalties on City were now harsher than ever. Maley and other directors were banned indefinitely, the club and seventeen players were hit with swingeing fines, and finally City were ordered to break up the side – all the players were to be transferred away once their bans were complete.

These punishments were unprecedented. At this remove, it’s impossible for us to know whether City were simply playing the same game as everyone else, or whether they really were particularly serious offenders. That other clubs were making illegal payments was tacitly admitted by the FA a couple of years later when they declared an amnesty on past offences, but whether the scale of it was similar to City’s we can’t know. Certainly City burned with a sense of injustice. Club historian Gary James notes that:

There is no doubt that the southern-based FA’s investigations were totally unfair as far as Manchester was concerned. No other League side has ever suffered to such an extent, regardless of tragedy or bans.

It was to take City until the 30s to recover themselves to a position where they were once again a major force in the land. In the meantime, several of the best players in their squad transferred across the city to United – it was apparently felt even by City fans that it was better they stayed in Manchester – and played a major role in turning United from the city’s poor relations to its dominant club. Meredith and Turnbull were among those who helped United to their first league title in 1908, and the FA Cup in 1909.

Both players were to be involved in their share of controversy in their United careers too. Turnbull became the first player to be sent off in a Manchester derby in 1909 (it took a bit of effort to get yourself sent off in those days) and was subsequently one of the United players implicated in a match-fixing scandal in 1915, involving a United – Liverpool match which United won 2-0, and in which a number of Liverpool players were seen to remonstrate publically with a teammate who hit the crossbar late on. Several players from both sides were banned for life, and although the bans were lifted after the war, that came too late for Turnbull – he was killed on active service at Arras in May 1917. His body was never found.

Meredith and teammate Charlie Roberts were the driving force behind the formation of the Players’ Union (now the PFA) in 1907, and the entire United squad were banned for a time in 1909 when the FA withdrew their recognition of the union. Chief among their disagreements, predictably, was the maximum wage.

Despite its controversy, Meredith enjoyed a career of remarkable longevity. He had made his debut for City in 1894 at the age of twenty, but after the First World War he was still fit enough to resume his United career, made the last of his 48 international appearances for Wales in 1920, and even transferred back to City in 1921 for another three year spell as player-coach. None of this made him rich. “Always remind your members that those caps and medals didn’t look after me in my old age,” as he said to a later secretary of the Players’ Union who visited him in his dotage. He died in 1958, a couple of months after the Munich air crash, not quite living long enough to see the eventual abolition of the maximum wage in 1961.

Thanks in good part to the efforts of Meredith and others like him, not earning enough money is unlikely to be among Tevez’s complaints.

The quote by Gary James is taken from the history chapter in his encyclopaedic ‘Manchester City: The Complete Record‘, but much of the story is lifted from Richard Sanders’ 2009 book ‘Beastly Fury: The Strange Birth of British Football‘, which I highly recommend.

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