April 29th has held a lot of significance for Manchester City over the years, for good and bad reasons. In 1986, City won the FA Youth Cup over Manchester United. In 1970, it marked City’s first (and so far, only) European trophy, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, which we won over Gornik Zabrze. One of the darker April 29th’s came in 1905, in a match with Aston Villa.
On that fateful day 110 years ago, Billy Meredith – a City star, with 11 years at the club and over 300 appearances under his belt – allegedly (although this has never been proven) made an offer to Villa half-back Alec Leake to throw the game for £10. The England international rejected the bribe from the Blues man, later turning him in to the Football Association, which resulted in the outside-forward getting a year-long ban from football for the 1905-06 season. Little did City know the events that were set in motion on April 29th 1905, and the effect they would have on cross-town rivals Manchester United in the coming years.
Following the announcement of his temporary banishment from football, Billy Meredith received the news that he wouldn’t be receiving payment from his club during the year of his suspension, by decree of the FA who prevented City from giving any support to their player. The Welsh star – still protesting his innocence in the whole incident – took exception to this, and exposed an equally surprising scandal which also involved his club.
He revealed that The Blues had been making illegal payments to their players, payments of over £4 a week. Given the astronomical wages of the modern game, that fee seems ridiculous but it was actually an imposed limit on the amount clubs could pay players, which meant City were breaking the rules. Feeling aggrieved for something he allegedly hadn’t done, Meredith exposed the illegal payments which put City in hot water.
Following the ensuing investigation, the club was fined £900 for its misdeeds, and 17 players plus directors who were involved also got slapped with fines of over £1000 for accepting the illegal payments, as well as being hit with a suspension until the beginning of 1907. To make it worse for the club, they were forced to hold an auction for their players, allowing other teams to come in and bid for them – one of those teams was Manchester United, who at the time were far from the superpower we know today.
Ernest Magnall, then United manager who would go on to manage City as well for 12 years from 1912 up until 1924, was present at that auction and ensured that four City players, who had a collective 579 league appearances for City, would be plying their trade at Bank Street (the United ground at the time) once their respective bans were over and they were free to kick a ball again. Those players were Billy Meredith, Herbert Burgess, a left-back, Jimmy Bannister, an inside-right, and Sandy Turnbull, an inside-forward like Meredith. They would all play a part for United over the next few years, as they became one of the superior sides in England despite being in Division Two when the City scandal came out.
Of course, the scandal is made more important due to City’s quality as a side at the time. We all know how patchy success has been for The Blues in their 135 year history, but the period of years just before the scandal in 1905 was one of their most successful, due to players like Meredith. That period saw the club’s first FA Cup win in 1904 (becoming the first club in Manchester to win a major trophy in the process), as well as two Division Two titles in the previous few years. Even in the 1904-05 season, despite all the controversy, City finished 3rd, with the 3-2 loss at Aston Villa (the game of the bribe) on the final day of the season ruling out any chance of City winning what would have been their first top-flight title.
The four players mentioned earlier who all made the trip to our cross-town rivals after the scandal went on to play a large part for United in the following years, making 629 league appearances for them before leaving the club. It can be argued that without the introduction of players like Billy Meredith and Sandy Turnbull (Turnbull was later involved in another match-fixing scandal in 1915 and banned for life) – who made 523 of those appearances – then United wouldn’t have become the successful side that they turned into back then, and might not be the even more successful side that we’re aware of today. Furthermore, we helped them be allowed into the league in the first place, and petitioned to keep them in instead of Manchester Central in the 1930s. And they say we have no history.