FOOTBALL has undergone a vast change since I was a young man. I cannot say it has been for the better.
“From what I have seen, the present day players fall far below the standard of years ago, in terms of adaptability and skill. Nowadays the team plan comes first.”
Sounds like a retired footballer talking about today’s modern tactical game doesn’t it? Well, in actual fact, that is an extract written some 65 years ago for a popular football magazine – Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly – by the subject of today’s Memory Lane column, Bristol City and England centre-half Billy Wedlock.
Now Billy has long since left us, having passed away 53 years ago last Thursday at the age of 84, but he remains a City legend and an important piece of the jigsaw of Bristol City’s history.
Born in North Street, just a stone’s throw from the City ground, Billy had two nicknames – ‘Fatty Wedlock’ and ‘India Rubber Man’ – both relevant to his size.
At only five feet, four-and-a-half inches tall and at ten-stone-seven, a bit on the stout side, Billy was rejected by City for being “too small” – height seemingly an important factor if you happen to be playing centre-half.
He went off to play part-time football in the Welsh League for Aberdare and his rave reviews caused City to have a rethink.
Billy duly returned to Ashton Gate, signing for the Robins and making his debut at Manchester United in September 1905. He would be practically an ever present that season, playing a major role in City winning promotion to the First Division (now Premier League).
In later years, he was asked how he won most of his heading duels, given his shortcomings in the height department. “All a matter of timing,” was his reply. “I made sure to get up in the air before the big bloke I was marking.”
His athletic ability to out-jump his man and seemingly hang in the air earning him the ‘India Rubber Man’ nickname.
A fixture and key player in City’s lineup, Billy was called up by England, making his international debut in February 1907, a 1-0 win over Ireland.
It would be the first of 26 caps for his country, 25 of them consecutive. He was also selected three times for the Football League representative side.
It was all going well with Billy at both club and country level and there was another momentous achievement in 1909, when the club, having ended their third season in the top flight in the lofty position of eighth, reached the final of the FA Cup. They did it the hard way, needing replays in four of their five ties to get to the final.
Interestingly one of the clubs they beat was Glossop, a Second Division League side back in the day. Other interesting team names on City’s fixture list that season included Woolwich Arsenal and Leicester Fosse, while City’s Cup run included ties against Norwich City and Southampton, both non- League back then.
On April 24, 1909, a crowd of over 71,000 saw Manchester United beat City 1-0 in the final, which was played at Crystal Palace. In 1910, Billy was included in the FA Touring XI, playing all three games in South Africa, but, at club level, the campaign ended on a sour note, with City relegated back into the old Second Division.
It would be another 66 years before the Robins would grace the top flight of the Football League once again. With regards to FA Cup glory, Billy and his team-mates did come close to another FA Cup final in the 1919-20 season, losing out in the semis to Huddersfield Town.
With age catching up with him, Billy, at nearly 41 years old, played his last game for Bristol City in September 1921, a 2-0 defeat at Hull.
Altogether he clocked up some 391 appearances (17 goals), a figure that would have been much greater but for the interruption of the First World War.
A benefit match against Manchester United brought in the princely sum of £354.3s.2d – that’s near enough £354.16 in today’s money and a princely sum indeed at the time.
He would go on to become mein host at The Star public house (later renamed Wedlocks) outside City’s main gates – sadly another pub to succumb to housing development.
Crippled by arthritis in later years, Billy died on January 25, 1965 at the age of 84. Some years later in 2001, his grave was rediscovered in Arnos Vale Cemetery, after extensive work to tidy up the grave yards.
Interestingly, his grandson Fred kept the name Wedlock in the public eye, but although Fred was a staunch City supporter, it was as a singer not footballer that he found fame, his Oldest Swinger in Town giving him a top ten hit in 1981.