Manchester is renowned throughout the world of football for its two great clubs and the history in which they are both steeped in. However, it is perhaps forgotten that Manchester was also the birthplace of one of the most important parts of the professional game. At the Imperial Hotel in Manchester, on the 2nd December 1908, a group of players led by Manchester United duo Billy Meredith and Charles Roberts formed what was then known as the Players’ Union.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th Century football players were heavily regulated in regards to the amount of money they could receive. Wages were capped at £4 a week and there was no way of players being able to negotiate bonuses or signing on fees for themselves. Clubs and players which tried to circumvent these strict laws were more often than not discovered and punished harshly with fines and suspensions.
For Billy Meredith, Welsh international and regarded as one of the finest players of the early 20th Century, he not only felt the need for a union to represent the needs of the players because of these strict financial terms but also because of allegations which reared their head regarding supposed match-fixing of the 1903 FA Cup Final. It was accused that Meredith and his team-mates had bribed opposition players and as a result of this the entire squad was suspended while the club was subject to huge fines.
The Welsh winger would go on to sign for Manchester United while serving his suspension but he saw his experience at Manchester City as a just cause for setting up the Players’ Union, believing players deserved the right to put up a case for any contract disputes and ensuring a fair treatment off the pitch, akin to what workers in other industries had.
This culminated in the meeting at the Imperial Hotel where Meredith, his team mate Charles Roberts and six others from Manchester United, as well as representatives of seven clubs agreed to the formation of the Players’ Union. Their aims were to ensure players were represented in any disputes with their clubs, players were taken care of should their career ended through injury and most importantly to fight for the players right to a fair wage and contractual freedom as other workers had done.
The formation of the Players’ Union caused uproar at the Football Association who saw the new Union as a threat to their control over the game and was concerned about the prospect of striking players. As a result the FA refused to recognise the Union and prior to the start of the 1909/10 season sought to end its influence once and for all by suspended any player who retained their membership to the Union. The FA’s action nearly worked as the majority of clubs and players relinquished their support, however, the Manchester United players failed to do so.
Led by captain Charles Roberts and goalkeeper Herbert Broomfield, secretary of the Union, the United players stood firm and refused to bow down to the FA’s demands. This resulted in the entire United squad being suspended and the prospect of Football League fixtures going unfulfilled as the season drew closer. The FA eventually backed down as support from players outside of Manchester began to rise again following Everton forward Tom Coleman coming out on the side of the Union. The Football League did get underway as planned and it was success for the Union.
While in the following years the Players’ Union would go on to help many indviduals in football who had been treated unfairly, the long contested minimum wage issue would go unresolved for more than half a century. However, the success of the Players’ Union, or Professional Footballers’ Association as it is known today, was undoubted, through helping injured footballers find a new trade to ensuring the widow’s of former players were financially secure, the work of Billy Meredith and his Outcasts is an important story and one which began in a hotel in Manchester.