This summer, Manchester United opened the new Premier League season with Alexis Sanchez, English football’s highest-paid player, leading their charge. 109 years earlier, the story was quite different. United’s players spent the build-up to the 1909–10 season on strike and were led in their dispute by the club’s first superstar, Billy Meredith.
Meredith was born in 1874 in the small Welsh mining village of Chirk to a devout Methodist family. His upbringing gave him a keen sense of justice and a faith in the power of collective action. So it was no surprise that, though he never proclaimed to be a socialist, he was a scourge of authority and an advocate for workers throughout his life.
An outside-forward, Meredith initially came to prominence at Manchester City, captaining them to the FA Cup in 1904. At that time, professional footballers were limited to a maximum wage of £4-a-week — the equivalent of £460 in today’s money, or 0.1 percent of Sánchez’s earnings. Players were also bound to their clubs indefinitely through the retain-and-transfer system and barred from taking a second income.
While most were deferential and made do with their lot, Meredith spoke out against the Football Association — the ‘little shopkeepers who govern our destiny’ — and in favour of his class. Though sceptical about the merits of professionalism, he resolved that if he must dedicate his life to his sport, he would. He then demanded that he and others be granted the freedom to sell their labour at a price commensurate to their talent.
Luckily, in City, he found himself at one of the many clubs that was happy to bend the rules and supplement the income of their players through creative accounting. This culture of underhanded bonuses was widespread, especially among the northern clubs, but it could not last. Things eventually came to a head in 1905, by way of a scandal centred on Meredith himself.
Accused of offering Aston Villa’s Alex Leake £10 to throw a First Division match pivotal to City’s title chances, Meredith was suspended by the Football Association for a year. When the club did not honour their promise to support him financially through his suspension, Meredith happily turned state’s evidence, revealing how City had circumvented the maximum wage on a regular basis.
The fallout saw City’s first great team dismantled and Meredith became one of four players to move across town to Manchester United. There, he met captain Charlie Roberts and goalkeeper Herbert Bloomfield — two new teammates who shared his grievances. Together, they turned to trade unionism.
On 2 December 1907, at Manchester’s Imperial Hotel, Meredith, Roberts, Bloomfield, and a group of their fellow disgruntled professionals from a dozen or so clubs formed the Players’ Union. Their demands included an end to maximum wage, freedom of contract, and a proportion of transfer fees, among others.
There was a degree of sympathy within the governing body, as Meredith’s biographer John Harding notes, but a consensus could not be reached on the key issue of liberalising the £4-a-week wage. Over the following 18 months, the union grew, as did fears among the authorities and the clubs of strike action.
In spring 1909, an increasingly-confident union attempted to affiliate with the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) and pursue unpaid wages through the provisions of the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1906. This would be the last straw, provoking a response from the authorities that Eamon Dunphy, in his biography of Sir Matt Busby, would call ‘astonishingly and audaciously venal.’
A ‘loyalty clause’, disowning the union and pledging allegiance to the FA, would be inserted into every contract for the forthcoming season. Though pockets of resistance emerged at clubs across northern England, notably in the North East, only United’s players — enthused by Meredith — refused as a bloc. The FA Cup holders, league champions a year before, were duly suspended.
Despite uncertainty over whether they would start the new season, United spent their summer training in Manchester’s public parks. On one of the many occasions which saw the nascent football press gather to watch, Roberts scrawled a new moniker for the team on a piece of wood and sat with it for a team photograph. ‘The Outcasts F.C.’ was born.
Soon, however, came a cruel capitulation. A conference between players and authorities was called in Birmingham, but with union members not formally invited. The few that did attend undercut those who stayed away, agreeing to start the season on time and thereby surrendering the key bargaining chip.
The union floundered in further negotiations over the coming months while an emboldened FA insisted on renouncing affiliation with the GFTU. A ballot in November saw 470 members vote against affiliation, accepting symbolic recognition of the union but also a great curtailing of its potential. A mere 172 voted in favour.
Meredith, reduced to bankruptcy in the midst of the strike, was crestfallen. He would be the last of the Outcasts to resign for United. ‘I confess that the bulk of players have not shown much pluck in the matter,’ he later admitted, ‘but those who voted in favour of remaining within the GFTU have the satisfaction of knowing that they behaved like men.’
It would be another 52 years before English football finally abolished the maximum wage. In the years since, salaries have inflated, arguably to the point of excess. That, however, is not the fault of a group of working-class men who, as the finest practitioners of their sport, fought for the rights they deserved.