The maverick keeper who changed the game for ever

There has never been a footballer quite like Leigh Roose. And there never will be. A “wondrous Hercules” of a goalkeeper adored by fans and troubling for the authorities, who changed the laws of the game to stop him. Roose went to war to save lives, won a Military Medal at the Somme and died as he had lived, with flair, bravery and abandon.

Maverick, entertainer, wannabe doctor, lover, scholar, brute, gymnast, joker. That was Leigh Richmond Roose. He was named as one of the top ten most recognisable faces in London, had an affair with the most famous music hall singer of the age, and lived large on expenses from his clubs. Good-­looking and charming, cheeky and infuriating; if ever the word outrageous fitted a man, it was Roose.

Taught by HG Wells

He was born in 1877, the son of a Presbyterian minister, in Holt, a village just few yards across the River Dee into North Wales. His mother died from cancer when he was two and he went to Holt Academy, a private school where he was taught by the author H.G. Wells, before studying science at Aberystwyth University.

He played in goal for Aberystwyth Town and Druids, Wrexham, and planned to be a doctor, moving to South London and a job as an assistant at King’s College Hospital.

Roose took up with London Welsh and had been due to begin a medical degree when football intervened; in 1901 he was snapped up by Stoke for their 13th season in Division One. It was in the Potteries that the legend began.

He invented a new style of goalkeeping

In 24 games for Wales and playing for seven top clubs in 11 years including Stoke, Everton and Sunderland, Roose changed the goalkeeping game. Under the rules of the time, keepers had a tough time of it; they could be bullied, battered and generally manhandled by the opposition. Pushing or shoulder-charging a keeper across their line counted as a goal. But crucially for Roose, they were also allowed to handle the ball anywhere in their own half, although they could not run without bouncing it on the ground.

Pre-­Roose, keepers tended to play a passive role, fearful of leaving their goal exposed they would not stray too far from their box and take the heavy blows of strikers. But Roose fully exploited the halfway-line rule, rushing out to break up opposition moves and begin attacks of his own. And when defending, he meted out the same rough treatment to forwards that they would give to keepers.

Roose told a journalist: “The law states that any goalkeeper is free to run over half of the field of play before ridding themselves of the ball. This not only helps to puzzle the attacking forwards, but to build the foundations for swift, incisive counter-attacking play. Why then do so few make use of it?”

When play was at the other end, he would delight the crowd by using his crossbar for a quick display of gymnastics.

At 6ft 1in and more than 13 stone, Roose was physically intimidating. Combined with his movement it made him a daunting opponent. He would charge, kick, bash and punch the other team’s strikers, most of which was considered acceptable in those days.

He was a prodigious penalty-saver and, unusually, would often wear a cap, shin-pads and, when the weather was rough, a pair of white gloves. He also had a “lucky shirt”, an old black-and-green Aberystwyth top which he never washed and wore under his strip for every game.

When play was down the other end, he would delight the crowd by occasionally sitting on his crossbar then using it for a quick display of gymnastics.

Roose, said The Dictionary of Welsh Biography, “had been thoroughly grounded in the fundamentals of his art, and gave interpretation to them in the style and manner of a man of genius”. The praise did not stop there.

Observers, it added, “could only gaze in wonder at his prehensile grip, the immense power of his punch, and the prodigious length of his goal kicks; they could only guess at the uncanny intuition by which he divined the aims of his opponents, the swift agile mind that worked behind the small, narrow eyes”.

"Roose grew to his full height as a man in the purgatorial crisis of a penalty, drying off the clay around his feet, washing away the dross which entered his character." Historian Thomas Richards in a profile of Roose

In his first game for Wales, Roose shoulder-charged an Irish winger on the touchline, knocking him unconscious.

He was a key player as his country won the Home Championship for the first time in 1907. Historian Thomas Richards, the man who called him “this wondrous Hercules” in his profile Gwr o Athrylith (Man of Genius), floridly described how Roose once faced a penalty:

“The heavy odour of death hung over the fateful spot,” wrote Richards. “Did you not hear a crowd of thousands suddenly become dumb mutes, did you not see the players standing in a half circle as if they were at a graveside? Everyone holding his breath.

“Roose grew to his full height as a man in the purgatorial crisis of a penalty, drying off the clay around his feet, washing away the dross which entered his character. Then came the signal; the ball travelled like a bolt from the foot of the penalty­-taking forward, and in the blink of an eyelid, revolution, a thump, and the ball landed in the heather and gorse of the Buarth” (an area near Aberystwyth’s ground).

Using the toilet (twice) = 2d A Roose expenses claim to Sunderland

Roose had his own eloquent advice on the game.

Writing in the 1906 publication Association Football And The Men Who Made It, said:

“There is a proverb which says: ‘Before you go to war, say a prayer; before going to sea say two prayers; before marrying say three prayers.’ One might add: ‘Before deciding to become a goalkeeper say four prayers.’ He's the Aunt Sally. To a goalkeeper alone is the true delight of goalkeeping known.”

Roose played as amateur throughout his career but made a good living claiming vast expenses from his clubs. Playing for Stoke he once missed a train from London to a match at Aston Villa. Before the war, private trains were available for hire so he travelled in one alone at the cost of five shillings a mile, plus the fare.

The bill he sent to Stoke was £31, more than a year’s wages for many people. At Sunderland he once claimed for “using the toilet (twice), 2d.”

Football’s first playboy

On weekdays Roose kept his job at King’s College Hospital, meaning he could afford a glamorous life with a central London apartment and suits from Savile Row.

Biographer Spencer Vignes describes him as “football’s first playboy”. His cousin Cecil Jenkins told how he took him for lunch at Scott's, Piccadilly: “He was in full morning kit with a top hat – a real man about town. When a carriage picked him up from the station to take him to the game, schoolboys would run after it.”

In 1905 The Daily Mail named Roose London’s second most eligible bachelor, behind cricket idol Jack Hobbs, and he although he had many romances he was never married. His affair with married music hall star Marie Lloyd, famous for the song My Old Man Said Follow The Van, caused a sensation and did not go down well with the FA.

Roose clashed often with authority, occasionally bad temperedly. He once beat up a Sunderland director and was banned for two weeks. In 1908, during half time as Wales were being badly beaten by England, he “had an unpleasant conversation with the England selectors, who thought that [his] speech was not such as might be expected from a gentleman.”

Sparked a riot with an old Stoke shirt

Stories of Roose’s eccentricities and behaviour abound. Playing in a cup semi-final for Celtic, he infuriated supporters by running to an opposition player who had just scored a goal and shaking his hand.

In March 1909, travelling to Ireland for a Home Championships game, he appeared at Liverpool station with a heavily bandaged hand, telling reporters he had broken two fingers. Just before the game he took the bandage off; there was nothing wrong with his hand and he helped Wales to a 2-3 win.

A year later, Roose insisted on playing in a vital match for Port Vale against his former club Stoke’s reserve team wearing his old Stoke shirt. As he saved a series of shots, some of the furious 7,000 crowd spilled on to the pitch and in the melee Stoke chairman the Rev A.E. Hurst was knocked out by one of his own players. Roose had to be rescued by police as Stoke fans tried to carry him away to thrown him in the River Trent. Stoke’s ground was closed as punishment and Roose said he had thought the game was “only a friendly”.

In goal for Everton against Sunderland, he made an unusual error which cost his side the game. At the next match against Derby he appeared 15 minutes before kick-off, walking around the pitch to apologise and shake hands with fans. He then kept a clean sheet.

Clubs began to complain about Roose’s style, saying it broke up attacking play too easily and was ruining the game. In June 1912 the FA changed Law 8, banning keepers from handling the ball outside their penalty area.

Won Military Medal in his first attack

When war came Roose joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and served at Gallipoli before in 1916 enlisting as a private in the Royal Fusiliers, where he became a noted grenade thrower among the university students and public school men of the 9th Battalion.

He won his Military Medal in his first action, dealing with a flamethrower attack at Ration Trench near Pozières on the Somme on August 6, 1916, on the same day and the same stretch of front line where William Short won his VC.

The Fusiliers’ regimental history records: “Private Leigh Roose, who had never visited the trenches before, was in the sap when the flammenwerfer attack began. He managed to get back along the trench and, though nearly choked with fumes with his clothes burnt, refused to go to the dressing station. He continued to throw bombs until his arm gave out, and then, joining the covering party, used his rifle with great effect.”

Name spelt wrong on Thiepval memorial

Roose was promoted to Lance Corporal but never received his medal. He was one of 313 9th Battalion casualties in an attack on Bayonet Trench near Gueudecourt on October 7. 2nd Lt Gordon Hoare, who scored two goals in the final to win a football gold medal with Great Britain in the 1912 Olympics, saw Roose running at great speed across no man’s land towards the German trenches, firing his rifle.

Later another soldier saw Roose lying in a bomb crater. His body was never found.

Typically for Roose, his story was to have one last idiosyncrasy. A clerical error meant his name was placed on the Thiepval memorial to the Somme missing as L Rouse, which is how it appears on his army records. Despite repeated appeals from family and admirers, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has not changed it. The campaign to correct Leigh Richmond Roose’s name continues to this day.

Remembering the Somme

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.

Make your own commemoration to Lance Corporal Leigh Roose or one of the other casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.

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