It has never been confirmed exactly how old Tommy Blackstock was when he died playing for Manchester United.
Some records say 24. Others claim that the Scottish full-back had just celebrated his 25th birthday when he collapsed after heading a ball during a reserve game against St Helens Recs in April 1907 and never regained consciousness.
Blackstock played just 38 senior games for United in four years.
He was regarded as a squad player, not in the same class as men like Billy Meredith, Sandy Turnbull and Charlie Roberts, who would form the backbone of United’s first great team.
But his death became a watershed moment for football. Blackstock’s family received no compensation for their loss, after an inquest ruled the defender died of natural causes.
And the club’s miserly stance compounded the fury of the players he left behind.
Blackstock had played for United’s first team just 48 hours earlier. He had only gone to offer vocal support to the reserve side but was persuaded to play by club officials.
The game continued after he was carried from the pitch.
And when Blackstock’s team-mates returned to the dressing room at half-time, shock turned to outrage when they were informed his body had already been taken to the morgue.
To the men earning the maximum permitted wage of £4-a-week, the episode put into sharp focus the reality of their status – they could be discarded at any time.
By the turn of the year, a meeting was held at Manchester’s Imperial Hotel to discuss forming a players’ union.
Meredith, Turnbull and Roberts were there. So were United team-mates Herbert Burgess, Charlie Sagar and Herbert Broomfield – and around 500 others.
The Association of Football Players’ and Trainers’ Union was established. And the powerhouse now known as the Professional Footballers’ Association was born.
More than 112 years later, a wary relationship between players and the clubs that employ them continues.
When the Premier League called for an across-the-board 30 per cent cut in wages to help meet the financial challenges of the coronavirus crisis, PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor resisted.
Players now hold the upper hand – and Taylor could see no sense in bailing out clubs owned by billionaires, when his members could give money directly to the NHS.
The PFA’s headquarters in Manchester is less than a mile away from the original union offices in St Peter’s Square. Taylor has been in charge since 1981 and earns around £2.3million-a-year for presiding over an organisation that banks an annual £23m payment from the Premier League.
Players now pay a one-off joining fee of £20 to become members and a yearly subscription of £150. Back in 1908, the joining fee was five shillings (25p), with a further sixpence (2.5p) payable weekly.
The main aim of the union was to get the maximum wage abolished.
Initially set by the FA in 1900 in a bid to prevent the top players chasing bigger salaries, it had been raised to just £20 by the time the threat of a PFA strike put paid to the practice 61 years later. Initially, the union had the backing of many clubs. But when the players seemed certain to take industrial action in 1909, the FA’s response was to issue the threat of suspension to anyone who refused to cancel their union membership.
United captain Roberts had lifted the FA Cup just a few months earlier – and he arranged for team-mates subsequently banned to train away from the club.
This group became known as Outcasts FC and their stance won the day when the FA backed down. But it was to remain a huge regret to Meredith that he was never able to get a full financial return on his talent.
A star for both Manchester clubs during a playing career that ended just 120 days short of his 50th birthday, the Welshman knew that football was a dangerous game.
Protection was never forthcoming from referees, so he recognised the importance of giving players financial compensation and legal recourse if their careers came to a premature end. Or worse.
In 1889, William Cropper, a talented sportsman who played football for Derby and cricket for Derbyshire, was kicked to death while taking part in a game for Staveley against Grimsby.
Cropper died of peritonitis after taking a knee to his stomach from Dan Doyle. It is believed the incident led to the phrase “coming a cropper” to describe someone’s misfortune.
Three years later, with professionalism now an accepted part of the game, Meredith was a Manchester City player when his Welsh international team-mate Di Jones died of blood poisoning after suffering a gashed knee in a friendly.
City arranged a benefit game to raise money for Jones’s family, but there was still some anger at the way the club dealt with the matter by claiming the incident was not work-related because it happened in pre-season.
Almost 120 years on, it is fair to say the tables have been turned.