This is the story of football’s first superstar. This is the story of a boy miner who became a global celebrity, the story of a man with as much skill as almost any footballer who came after him in the 20th-century, this is the story of a man who dedicated his life to the improvement of players’ rights, this is the story of Billy Meredith on United Through Time.

Billy Meredith is genuinely one of the greatest names in football. Almost a century after his final game for Manchester United and Wales, he is still regarded as one of the best players to feature for club and country.

“He was the Cristiano Ronaldo of his day”

When Meredith made his final appearance for Manchester City (yeah we’ll get onto that!), he was only four months shy of his 50th (yes, 50th!) birthday. In a career spanning across a quite ridiculous four decades, Meredith had won the FA Cup with both United and City, played more than 300 games for both clubs and had been banned for bribery.

His career, and his career took up most of his life, is one filled with the most brilliant stories. He is the subject of Episode Six of United Through Time and concludes our first series: “The Formative Figures”.

United Through Time is the podcast delving into the history of Manchester United with extensive original research, thorough interviews, and immersive documentaries. Going in chronological order, the podcast looks at the most influential individuals from Newton Heath to Manchester United.

Your host is Harry Robinson, a Manchester United fan, historian and freelance journalist.

Joining Harry on this episode of United Through Time is a host of excellent guests, some you have heard from before and some newer faces.

  • John Harding is an esteemed sports journalist and biographer of Billy Meredith. John recently also wrote the biography of Frank Barson, another great Manchester United player. And his writing can regularly be found in The Blizzard and The Squall.
  • Paddy Barclay is a former Sports Journalist of the Year and the biographer of three Manchester United managers, including Sir Matt Busby.
  • Dr. Gary James is an authority of football history in Manchester. His latest book, The Emergence of Footballing Cultures in Manchester, 1840-1919, is a groundbreaking piece of work.
  • Mark Metcalf is another author of another excellent book on Manchester United, titled ‘The First Halcyon Years, 1907-1911‘ about United’s first great team which included Meredith.
  • Gwyn Jenkins is author of ‘The Manchester United Welsh‘.
  • Colin Savage is a Manchester City fan and writer for fanzine King of the Kippax.
  • Ean Gardiner is the biographer of Harry Stafford.
  • Paddy Barclay is a former Sports Journalist of the Year and the biographer of three Manchester United managers, including Sir Matt Busby.
  • Richard Butler is a freelance sports journalist.
  • Ted Roberts is the grandson of Billy’s old teammate and captain Charlie Roberts.

Meredith for me is by far the most important figure connected with both Manchester teams, for what he’s achieved at both teams. Meredith was the first to do it for both clubs and basically made both those clubs, through his playing, attractive clubs to watch, popular clubs, and clubs that became established as part of the hierarchy in football.”

Dr. Gary James

Billy Meredith is just one of those people. One of those people who is unerringly fascinating. He was football’s first superstar and in an era where a ‘world war’ had never been heard of before, Billy Meredith was a name known across the European continent, not just England.

I used to liken him to George Best in the sense that he was a global superstar and the most famous footballer in the world

John Harding

And yet, he wasn’t completely like George Best.

Billy fought for the improvement of footballers’ rights to a good wage, safe working conditions and family support. He didn’t drink. He was fitter than any of his counterparts. He didn’t smoke either. He ran a shop that sold sports equipment and he made his own lotions that helped his muscles recover quicker from games. He played until he was 49.

And yet when Saturday comes, Billy is a man of mischief, a great football player, one of the greatest, but a prankster too. He took shoelaces out of boots, took lids of famous trophies and placed them in a teammates pockets. And when the recipient of his latest jest discovered the play, Meredith would be on the other side of the room laughing. He was an entertainer. On the pitch, he used his skills.

Meredith’s powers of divination often left his opponents as figures of comedy,” Percy Young wrote.

Off the pitch, he used pranks. He was a hero to the Edwardian working class. An almost other-worldly figure of inspiration. Fans absolutely adored him, not just in Manchester but across the country. In newspapers, he would be depicted always in the same way, with a toothpick sticking out of his mouth. Often during games when the ball was on the other side of the pitch, he’d turn round and chat to the fans standing near him. He revelled in his fame.

“On the field Meredith was the supreme craftsman, utterly devoted to his vocation and indifferent to public praise or blame. His paleness accentuated by his dark moustache, he appeared as something of a melancholic, and his occasional sallies of football wit sardonic but there was more than the seeing eye, more than showed on the surface.”

And yet he almost had two characters. In midweek, away from the football pitch, he could be very different. Like all geniuses, he had his quirks. In his shop, he would be a normal person, slightly perturbed by the constant stares through the window of Mancunions turning to their mate and saying ‘that’s the great Meredith’. He always wore a cap and stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets like a schoolboy in the village. And he was a fighter, a determined fighter for rights. He fought because he possessed a reluctance to succumb to standard conventions, to be normal and thus to live with exploitation.

A great player, a fascinating character. This is the story of Billy Meredith, who, in his words, “was born to play football, you know.”

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