Football's first superstar: Billy the Wiz (£4 a week)

It's 100 years since football turned professional. And in 1907, when the Welsh Wizard Billy Meredith turned up for work, it was on a tram (not in a Baby Bentley)...
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The Independent Football

The Baby Bentley crew will get a lesson in how to grow up this week. A century after British football became professional and unionised, the current Premiership stars, lambasted last week for their obsession with flash cars, will be invited to a gala dinner to remember the past.

West Ham's manager, Alan Curbishley, rounded on soccer's "baby Bentley" culture following his team's recent 6-0 drubbing by Reading. The timing could hardly have been more pointed, as players this week prepare to celebrate the centenary of the body that changed their fortunes for ever.

In the days when the Professional Footballers' Association was formed to end artificially low wages, the players had few privileges, sharing the usual transport of the day with the common man, be it train, tram or on their feet.

The game's current stars, who earn up to £120,000 a week, will hear how players such as the "Welsh wizard" Billy Meredith, football's first superstar, lived rather differently from modern players. At the age of 12, Meredith began working at his local coal pit, close to his birthplace of Chirk in north Wales, in 1886. He went on to become the greatest player of his day.

Meredith was a teetotaller who married his childhood sweetheart and whose only vices were his pipe and chewing tobacco. But it was this moustachioed Manchester United and City winger who paved the way for players to earn today's weekly £100,000 wages. He was the man who chaired the PFA - football's equivalent of a trade union - at its formation 100 years ago.

On Wednesday, Wayne Rooney, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, along with old hands Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Tom Finney, will be among those gathering to outline how this year will mark the anniversary of its formation.

Despite Meredith's fearsome reputation and unquestionable skill on the pitch, the PFA's birth was due to his involvement at the heart of a scandal that rocked the game and saw him handed a lengthy ban.

He had become a familiar figure at Manchester City dribbling down the right wing, a lucky toothpick gripped determinedly between his teeth, and his goal-striking rate was second to none. He was described as the "finest right winger living, an awkward customer to tackle, as slippery as an eel with shooting powers extraordinary".

But in 1905 he was landed with an 18-month ban for trying to bribe the opposition into throwing matches. City had been aware of the scam, but the team distanced itself. This prompted Meredith to blow the whistle on the club's practices, which were said to include illegal payments to new players when they signed up, a role in the bung scandal and breaking FA rules on a £4-a-week wage ceiling.

His tale of corruption from the top resulted in the entire 1903 FA Cup-winning side being suspended and prevented from playing for City again. Once the ban was up, he joined United - making his debut 100 years ago this week - but his experiences had made him bitter and he became a catalyst in the formation of a union.

Speaking about the players' lot at the time, Meredith said: "What is more reasonable than our plea that the footballer, with his uncertain career, should have the best money he can earn? If I can earn £7 a week, should I be debarred from receiving it?" Yet for all the general innocence of the age, not all the players of the day were as clean-cut as Meredith.

When it comes to a bad boy of the era, step forward William "Fatty" Foulke, one of football's greatest characters. Despite his colossal 26-stone bulk, he managed to hold down a successful career as a goalie for Sheffield United and captain of Chelsea, even winning an England cap in 1897. Popular myth says that he inspired the "who ate all the pies" chant. But the cause of his death, cirrhosis, certainly points to a hefty intake of booze.

Meredith's lifestyle was much more in tune with the idea of the professional sportsman of today. Reflecting on his regime during his playing days - he continued on the pitch to the age of 49 and died, aged 83, in 1958 - he said: "I've always realised that to play the game well a man must be fit. I never take intoxicants. I do smoke a pipe - and I train regularly two days a week. You cannot have too much ball practice, and that is one thing I wish the youngsters of today would take to heart."

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