Today (29 April) is the anniversary of one of the most controversial games in the history of football. It was a match played at Aston Villa by Manchester City and took place on 29 April 1905. I know it’s a long time ago but I would urge all Manchester football fans to read this as it led to a change in the fortunes of both Manchester clubs and was to have repercussions for years.
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The story starts three days earlier… On 26 April Newcastle United levelled on points with City after a 3-1 victory over Sheffield Wednesday, making the final day of the season a tense affair. Either of those teams, plus League leaders Everton could win the title. With both Newcastle and City level, a mere one point behind Everton who had already completed their League programme, the title race was wide open. City knew they had to win and hope that Newcastle failed as the Blues goal average was inferior to the Geordies.
The final fixtures saw Newcastle away at near neighbours Middlesbrough, while the Blues travelled to Villa Park to face the Cup winners. City captain Billy Meredith later recalled: “Aston Villa had no chance of taking the honour. Our officials were very keen on us finishing with level points and we were offered a good bonus if we managed to do this. Our blood was up and the game wasn’t the pleasantest.”
As Meredith stated the game did not demonstrate the gentlemanly side of football, if anything it showed how physical football could become with numerous off the ball incidents and dangerous tackles. It seems that Villa, who had never really liked playing either Manchester club, wanted to finish the season in the style they had shown at the FA Cup final the week before (Villa had beat Newcastle 2-0). They did not want the ‘ungentlemanly professionals’ from Manchester to achieve further success, especially as they were still regarded as young upstarts with no tradition. Looking back it is difficult to understand exactly how the Blues were viewed, but as an analogy with the 2000s it is safe to say that Villa were the early century’s equivalent of Manchester United in terms of FA support and media interest, whereas City were similar to Abramovich’s Chelsea or even Sheikh Mansour’s City. In the eyes of many, they were a side with ‘no history’ that had appeared from nowhere to challenge the establishment. Sadly, the establishment, especially in the early 1900s, would always win.
With Villa determined to put City in their place, the Blues resorted to tactics many suspected came naturally. Manager Tom Maley’s City let themselves down, and conceded goals to Villa’s Garraty, Hampton, and Hall. The pressure was on. Two second half goals from George Livingstone and Sandy Turnbull brought the Blues back into it, but it wasn’t enough. During the final thirty minutes the game became progressively more violent with Sandy Turnbull seemingly involved in every incident. The Bolton Football Field reported: “Turnbull was in his dourest dribbling mood, dashing about the ball with his whole heart set on victory. Leake found him a real hard opponent and, becoming annoyed at the rough impact, gathered up a handful of dirt and hurled it at the City man. Turnbull was not hurt and responded with an acknowledgement favoured by the bourgeoisie – thrusting two fingers in a figurative manner at the Villa man.”
According to the report: “Leake appeared to look towards the referee as though appealing, and not catching his eye, ‘gave Turnbull a backhander’. The latter immediately responded with his fists and Leake was restrained by his fellow players from retaliating further.”
Although Turnbull had developed a reputation for a rough style of play it appears that he was not the guilty one this time. Unfortunately, Leake was viewed as a gentleman and many were convinced that he would only react, not provoke. The Villa biased Sports Argus tried to convince its readership that Leake was entirely innocent and that he had merely enquired what Turnbull was doing rather than throw dirt at him and give him a ‘backhander’. It also claimed the City man had hit Leake at least twice.
The game continued but frequent fights broke out, spoiling any chance the Blues had of equalising. Despite the result and the realisation that City had lost out in the title race, it was a relief when the final whistle went. However, the controversy did not end there as the Bolton Football Field reported: “Turnbull was coming off the ground (I think he was almost the first of the City players) and was going down the covered passage to the visitors’ dressing room when someone, not a player, sprang out from the urinal and grabbed Turnbull, pulled him inside the Villa dressing room and the door was shut behind him. I thought the whole thing was in fun until, within a few seconds, the door was opened and Turnbull was pitched out heavily, by whom I could not see. He was yelling with pain and fright, and he had obviously been badly handled for his right cheek was grazed with a black mark or dirt (something like a cyclist describes as a cinder rash) and he had a mark on his ribs where he had been kicked.”
Nobody disputed that Turnbull had been the victim of a deliberate attack by Villa men, but incredibly the Birmingham Sports Argus tried to justify it, thus causing further insults to fly from Manchester to Birmingham and vice versa. Significantly, it wasn’t merely the Villa players and employees who were attacking the City men as police had to be called into the ground to protect the Manchester players. An angry mob even stoned the City party. A season that had promised so much ended in disgraceful scenes.
The FA had to act, especially as City’s game against Everton eight days earlier had also been viewed as a battle. They set up a special committee to meet in Derby to consider the events at both matches. Meeting behind closed doors, the committee were taking considerable steps to understand everything that surrounded the two games and, as the summer progressed, they interviewed player after player in their quest for the full facts. This seemed rather suspicious, especially to the northern newspapers who were now convinced that the committee were fishing for a bigger catch than merely a disrepute charge against one or two players. With the FA meeting in secret rumour spread throughout football, with most northerners convinced the ‘southern’ FA would make City the scapegoats.
On 4 August 1905, a month before the new season started, the FA committee finally produced their surprising findings. Firstly, they suspended J.T. Howcroft and R. T. Johns – the referees of the games at Goodison and Villa respectively – for a month each for failing to control the games. Howcroft in particular was criticised for ‘extraordinary feebleness in a critical match’. Then they announced that Tom Booth of Everton and City’s Sandy Turnbull were to be suspended for one month, yet no mention was made of Villa’s Leake. Also, that Booth’s sentence would be suspended because of: “previous good conduct and the provocation received.” And finally, the most shocking news of the whole affair: “The Commissioners also reported on statements brought to their notice with regard to W. Meredith of Manchester having offered a sum of money to a player of Aston Villa to let Manchester City win the match. W. Meredith is suspended from football from 4th August until April 1906.”
The people of Manchester – and Wales – were outraged that Football’s greatest player could be found guilty of bribery. Meredith, staying in Chirk during the close season, spoke to the press: “I am entirely innocent and am suffering for others. Such an allegation as that of bribery is preposterous! I could never risk my reputation and future by such an action and I repeat that I never made such an offer. It is totally unjustifiable and grossly unfair. This sort of thing will demoralise Association Football. Manchester has not many friends among the Association officials and I doubt if the decision will be reversed or the suspension lessened if the whole case is reopened and enquired into.”
He added that Aston Villa had too much influence within the FA . The general feeling was that Manchester City had suffered because, as Meredith had stated that summer, City were simply too popular. In Simon Inglis’ review of football’s major scandals, Soccer in The Dock, that theory is followed in more detail: “Alec Leake was not even mentioned, even though it had been plainly stated that Turnbull had been assaulted by Villa players after the game. Small wonder therefore that in the eyes of many neutrals the FA appeared to bear a grudge against Manchester City, a nouveau riche club with no traditions. Villa, in contrast, were solidly reliable, brimming with honours and very much part of the football establishment. Some commentators noted caustically that Leake was an England international while the other players were not. Meredith meanwhile complained, ‘Had I been anyone but a Welshman I should have been better dealt with.’ But Harricus of Athletic News said the FA’s methods had seemed ‘un-English, most autocratic and arbitrary.”
It does appear that the Blues had suffered merely because of who they were and not through the actual actions.
As the weeks passed, further details emerged. It seemed that Leake had laughed off Meredith’s alleged bribery attempt at the time, thinking it to be very much a joke, but as the FA commission investigated the Villa-City match a ‘responsible gentleman from Birmingham’ came forward to state that he had overheard the conversation. Leake was interrogated further and was apparently forced to admit that Meredith had attempted to bribe him. Meredith claimed that he had not attempted to bribe the player but did admit to having a conversation with him. Instead of offering him £10, he claimed to have offered his congratulations to Leake for lifting the FA Cup.
The matter did not end there, however. City’s complaints and the anti-FA comments that appeared in the mainly northern sporting press upset the councillors of the FA They felt that their actions were right and, if anything, became more interested in the affairs of City because of the proclamation of innocence. They appointed an auditor, Tom Hindle, to keep a close watch on City and report anything out of the ordinary. Because of the state of most leading clubs at the time, not only City, it was not long before Hindle became suspicious.
Meredith, while banned from all football activity, still appeared at Hyde Road asking for his wages and he expected the Blues to look after him: “Though the FA suspended me, I felt strongly that my club would see that I was not the loser financially. At the beginning of the trouble it looked as if the club was going to recognise this, but later I found them shilly-shallying and putting me off until I got tired.”
Understandably, for a man who had dedicated over ten years to the club he expected that club to care for him, especially when on the first day of the ban (4 August 1905) Tom Maley sent him a letter suggesting that he would always be a member of the City, but would have to ‘lie low’ until Hindle had gone away. The fact was that the Blues were not allowed to support him – the FA had made it quite clear. Because of this, every visit or demand by Meredith caused tremendous embarrassment. There is no doubt that the club wanted to look after him, however they were forbidden from doing so. Meredith could not accept this and regularly arrived at the ground only to be told he was not welcome. Arguments were witnessed by Tom Hindle, the FA auditor, and the club were in real danger of being investigated once again. Hindle persuaded Maley to report Meredith to avoid an FA investigation.
Maley’s letter was a difficult one to write: “I am instructed by my directors to bring to the notice of your Association the conduct of William Meredith, a player of this club at present under suspension. This player has been in attendance at almost all the principal matches at our ground and invariably frequented the dressing room and offices despite requests not to do so.”
The letter sent on 14 February 1906 went on to say that Meredith had periodically approached the board for his wages, and that when his requests were turned down the player made threats. Basically, the letter gave the impression that Meredith was a parasite. This was something neither Maley nor the City Board believed, however with Hindle’s encouragement it seemed the only way to avoid further investigation. Unfortunately, it failed.
Meredith was so appalled by the Club’s actions that he started to speak out about the incident with Leake. The FA immediately set up a new commission and started to interview the City players and management not only about the bribe, but also about illegal payments to players. Meredith now claimed that he had in fact offered Leake £10, but told the commission that this was at Tom Maley’s suggestion with full approval from the rest of the City team. City were no longer a united team, and with their former captain revealing that he was not the only member involved in the attempted bribe, the rest of the squad were to be interrogated. Any spirit that existed prior to the Villa game must surely have disappeared by this point.
Tom Maley was adamant that he did not have anything to do with the attempted bribery. He was aware that three players had talked about the idea but that one of them clearly stated that he would not stoop so low. He did not reveal who the players were, but it is apparent that Meredith was one of the party. The other issue being pursued by the commission was the question of illegal payments. Maley did not deny that payments had been made to players more than the maximum, but claimed that this seemed common business practice in England and that he only continued to follow the club’s standard practices. He stated that if all First Division clubs were investigated, not four would come out ‘scatheless’.
City were certainly guilty of paying above the maximum but if the FA had carried out a similar investigation at all the leading clubs they would have found the same situation. Unfortunately, City were the team under the spotlight and, as they and their friends in the media, had already criticised the FA they were to be taught a lesson.
The Edward Hulton owned Athletic News not only blamed the FA it also pointed the finger at Meredith: “The famous footballer determined not only to admit that he had made an offer to Alec Leake – an offence which ought to have ended his football career – not only that he had been most lavishly and generously paid by the Club which ran dreadful risks to give him all they had except the goalposts, but dragged everyone else he could into the same mess. No sense of gratitude for all the managers who, over the years, remunerated him so that he became comparatively rich, no ideals of friendship for the men who, admitting his enviable playing skills, had done everything they could for him, and no feeling of loyalty for the comrades who had fought side by side with him in many a scrap of hard games restrained this man from divulging the secrets of his masters and colleagues. It would have been honourable to confess his own deeds, to express his sorrow and promise an amendment that he promised to fulfil but he took a course that amounted to revenge after he had been simply killed by kindness by the club whose colours he wore.”
On Thursday 31 May 1906 commissioners J.C. Clegg, Charles Crump, and D. B. Woolfall reported on what they had discovered. They were of the opinion that City had been overpaying for years and that the players had actually gained the power and had demanded illegal payments. With the maximum wage at £4, it was revealed that Meredith had been earning £6 and that Livingstone had demanded and received £6 10s. Even the amateur Sam Ashworth had received £50 on top of £25 expenses, and was subsequently declared a professional by the commission.
If all of this wasn’t bad enough then came the real shock. A total of seventeen current and former players were to be suspended until 1 January 1907. Tom Maley and former Chairman Waltham Forrest were to be suspended from English football sine die, while directors Allison and Davies were to be suspended for seven months. City were fined £250 and the suspended players had to pay a total of £900 in fines: Meredith (£100), Livingstone (£100), Hynds (£75), McMahon (£75), Hillman, Turnbull, Booth, Burgess, Frost, Bannister, Dearden, Gillespie, and Holmes (all £50), Edmundson, Davidson, Lyon, and Ashworth (all £25).
The club was virtually dead. No club in the history of football had ever suffered to such an extent, regardless of tragedy or bans, and survived. No matter what irregularities there were, did City really deserve to be treated so harshly? What makes the matter so incredible is that the club were no worse than most of their big name rivals, any of whom could have been investigated and banned to the same extent, as he media often stated.
City’s first golden period ended in shame. The 1905-6 season, which had seen the Meredith-less club challenge for the title once again, ended with the Blues in fifth place. Not surprisingly, a loss of form had coincided with the FA investigation. Although it is impossible to say what the Maley inspired City side may have achieved, it still angers many associated with the Blues that the club were so cruelly attacked at a time when they should have been dominating football. If the side had remained together, would they have won the League? Would the Cup have resided at Hyde Road again? An indication of what City should have achieved appears in the history of Manchester United from 1907 to 1911 when the Reds won two League titles and the FA Cup with several of the former Hyde Road stars, including Meredith and Turnbull. The Blues presented Manchester United with their first opportunity to be successful.
One point worth making is that City were not the only side to suffer as a result of the suspensions. Four of the players were already with other clubs – Ashworth with Everton, Lyon with Preston, Holmes at Clapton Orient, and Davidson at Airdrie. Those clubs felt they should not be penalised for another team’s errors, although it was only Airdrie who had the chance of going against the ban. They persuaded the Scottish FA to ignore their English equivalent body and managed to play Davidson whenever necessary.
Three players still left at Hyde Road appealed as they had been reserve players during 1904-5 and, even after bonuses were included, had not received the maximum £208. Their appeal failed, as did a petition signed by 4,128 City supporters against all the suspensions.
With all these players banned from playing for City, the Blues had to find replacements. They also had the small matter of finding a manager and directors.
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