Leigh Richmond Roose: the forgotten hero who became football’s first playboy

Leigh Richmond Roose: the forgotten hero who became football’s first playboy

IMAGINE MANUEL NEUER plucking the ball out of the air, dropping his shoulder into the onrushing centre-forward, dribbling basketball-style downfield, then rocketing a shot from the halfway line. Bit far-fetched? Back in the 19th and early 20th century, this was within the rules of the game.

Goalkeepers were used as an additional defender and allowed to handle the ball anywhere in their own half, while physical contact with the opposition was encouraged. They wouldn’t venture far, though, since the threat of being hammered by opposition forwards saw them pinned to their lines, regarded as cannon fodder. However, a minister’s son from north Wales would change this perception and the rules once and for all. 

Leigh Richmond Roose was born on 27 November 1877, the fourth of five children of a Presbyterian minister and his wife in the village of Holt, five miles from Wrexham, close to the English border. Roose attended the Holt Academy and developed an interest in science, performing well in most subjects. Alongside his aptitude for studying, his spare time was taken up with football.

The Welsh love for rugby was mainly restricted to the southern part of the country, and any breaks in lessons would see an impromptu game of football start. Teachers would routinely be coerced into refereeing the games, much to the chagrin of future science fiction aficionado and novelist HG Wells who taught there briefly in 1888. His time at the Academy was cut short after he received a ruptured kidney from the boot of the elder Roose sibling, Edward.

The rough and tumble of 19th-century football appealed to Roose and it wasn’t long before he had found his home between the goalposts. Thick set and standing close to six feet by the age of 15, he relished the chance to go up against the tactics of the opposition’s forwards and handled himself accordingly. A popular pupil and teammate, he was seen as someone who was happy in his own company without necessarily being a loner. His somewhat eccentric personality suited that of a goalkeeper. 

By 16, Roose had left Holt Academy and decided to embark on a future in medicine. Despite being from a middle-class background, the Roose family were far from wealthy. Eldest son John had missed out on a place at Oxford University due to financial constraints and settled for a career in the ministry. The University of Aberystwyth offered Leigh Roose a chance to study science, and shortly after his 17th birthday, he set off to begin what he hoped would be the first step in a successful medical career.

Roose leapt at the chance to join the university football team, keen to play a game he saw as a fun pastime whilst he studied. He quickly became the star of the side and developed his role as a sweeper-keeper. His style was different to all others, however, at home diving at the feet of rampaging forwards and not afraid to mix it up with the opposition. Word spread of the goalkeeper who could punch the ball further than most could kick it, with crowds amassing as female students circumvented the rules of the time and attended games, everyone eager to catch a glimpse of him in action. 

He embraced his new celebrity status. Off the pitch he dated female students, his confidence boosted further by his discovery of alcohol. On the pitch, he honed his act to perfection. Football at this time saw players walk sombrely onto the pitch, but Roose broke protocol by entering at full speed, arms aloft waving and clapping to the fans. He would pace around his penalty area and mutter under his breath. Spectators’ mouths were agape; was he praying? Maybe giving himself one final pep talk? Or was it all part of his act?

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His performances did not go unnoticed by local Welsh league side Aberystwyth Town, who had lost their first-choice ‘keeper to Manchester City and needed a replacement fast. Roose came in and made his debut in a 6-0 win over Whitchurch before he starred in a shock FA Cup first-round win against Glossop in December 1898.

The following year he passed his preliminary science exams and hoped to study for a degree which would see him leave Aberystwyth. The club was desperate for him to stay and offered to pay him generous expenses. Swayed by this, Roose deferred his studies for a year, a decision that paid dividends. Aberystwyth Town won all three cup competitions they entered that season and, as the calendar turned to 1900, Roose also received his first Wales call-up. 

Despite his success, he didn’t deviate from his plan to one day be a doctor. He finally said goodbye to Aberystwyth and moved to London, where he hoped to secure a post at King’s College Hospital. However, his late arrival in the capital meant that the course was full and Roose would have to wait. Unperturbed, he secured an assistant’s job at the hospital and joined London Welsh FC, as much for the football as the social life. News of the eccentric goalkeeper’s arrival spread, and Leigh Roose quickly became the talk of the town, with attendances rising wherever he played, something that piqued the interest of top-level professional clubs.

Eager to take advantage of his growing reputation in the game, clubs courted Roose, yet he was adamant he would not turn professional and, by remaining amateur, he played for expenses which supplemented his basic hospital wage. Stoke City agreed to Roose’s demands and paid for his living and weekly travel expenses from London. He was now a professional in all but name. 

Although in the first division, the side from the Potteries had seen attendances fall below 3,000 and had slipped towards the bottom of the league. The hope was Roose’s addition would improve things both on and off the pitch, an opportunity that he would grab with both hands. His debut saw him take the pitch and bow to all four sides of the ground before his trademark pacing around the area, finally swinging on the crossbar as the crowd erupted. Humdrum by today’s standards perhaps, but this was like nothing early 20th-century football fans had ever seen.

It wasn’t all for show, though, as Roose’s ability more than matched his antics. The improvement was instant as the Potters moved away from the foot of the table and Roose relaxed into his new surroundings. He revelled in the fame and could often be found chatting to spectators during games, even turning his legs to jelly when he faced a penalty kick, some 80 years before Bruce Grobbelaar’s version of spaghetti legs in Rome. Roose’s latest trick was hiring a hansom cab on his arrival from Euston station and driving it to the Victoria Ground himself with fans flocking behind. 

He had the finest suits, untold riches and his name on the guest list of all the top social events that London had to offer. His high life was tempered by daily runs around Regent’s Park to help stay fit; he was now quicker, leaner and playing at the highest level. His game had improved with his kicking and throwing at incomparable levels. His on-field eccentricity had grown too. Superstition saw him refuse to wash his kit, wearing the same ensemble since he had won the Welsh Cup with Aberystwyth. The dapper man about town was nowhere to be seen on a Saturday afternoon. 

Life was good, but this was the beginning of the end for Roose and Stoke. Behind the scenes, finances were strained and the Stoke board approached him with a request to reduce his extravagant expenses. Furious with what he saw as Stoke reneging on the deal, Roose spoke to the owner to say he would not agree to it. A frustrating end to the season coupled with several costly mistakes made Roose’s mind up. First Division survival was secured with one game to go but he was gone. Roose returned to London and sent letters to the Welsh FA and Stoke City to inform them of his retirement, aged only 26 and regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the game.   

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Roose returned to study for his Bachelor of Medicine and continued to live the lavish lifestyle that Edwardian London had to offer. The weekends he travelled up and down the country had worn him down yet he strangely missed it. He also missed football. He yearned for the thrill of the crowd, for the off the cuff antics and the battle with the opposition. It gnawed away at him, so when Everton needed help to solve an injury crisis, he jumped at the chance to don the gloves once more. 

His usual confidence was nowhere to be seen, worried that he would let down a team full of internationals. Nerves perhaps got the better of him on his debut at a packed Goodison Park, a missed cross leading to the only goal in a 1-0 defeat to Sunderland. A clean sheet followed in the next game against Derby, where Roose took to the pitch early to shake hands with spectators and apologise for his previous mistake.

Performances improved and Everton’s slick, attacking football saw them reach the top of the table. Led by Alex Young and Harold Hardman, the Toffees were well set for a league and cup double. Injured players returned but Roose was still number one. An unforgiving fixture list proved to be their undoing with a semi-final exit in the cup and a second-place finish in the league. 

A fallout with manager William C. Cuff over his Wales duties added to the disappointment and Everton informed Roose they would not require his services the following season. However, the short spell had seen Roose’s fame hit an all-time high. His position as an amateur in an ever-increasingly professional game drew interest, while press requests grew; the Daily Mail named him in their World XI, and Roose penned a column where he offered his thoughts on the game. 

A second spell at Stoke ended in similar circumstances to the first with arguments over his expenses again, however this time, the cash-strapped board leaked details of his claims to the press. A two-week suspension for punching an abusive Sunderland fan after a game perhaps summed up his return to the Potteries as Stoke were finally relegated.

The altercation with the Sunderland fan didn’t affect any relations between Roose and the club as he replaced the original ‘Prince of Goalkeepers’ Ted Doig at Roker Park, although not before he had helped his country win their first Home Nations Championship in 1907. Alongside best friend and fellow North Walian, Billy Meredith, they paraded the trophy to the erstwhile throng of Welsh football fans in Wrexham, while the South Wales press finally began to sit up and take notice of the round-ball game.

Roose’s spell with Sunderland saw him become the focus of more attention from the FA, as suspicions of elaborate expenses saw demands for his claims to be made clear. Roose returned his list, sarcastically headlined by “a pistol to ward off the opposition” and “using the toilet (twice)”. The FA’s fury was calmed when Sunderland produced actual receipts which satisfied the eagle-eyed rulers. Whether the FA saw a receipt for the £31 Roose charged to the Mackems when he hired his own steam locomotive to make a game on time remains unknown.

Many tales come from this period of his life, such as stories of him sat on his crossbar as he waited for a corner to be taken, an impromptu keepie-up session in his penalty area and a tongue lashing from Meredith when he conceded a goal for Wales whilst chatting to a fan behind the goal. His relationship with married music hall icon Mary Lloyd was the talk of the town, with Roose mentioned as frequently in the showbiz pages as he was in the sports section.

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Roose had developed into somewhat of a gun for hire. During his time at Sunderland, he also featured for several teams in a variety of games. A disastrous game for Celtic saw him leave Scotland under the cover of darkness after a raging argument with disgruntled fans. One opportunity he couldn’t resist, however, was when he was asked by Port Vale to star against their neighbours and his former side Stoke City. When the Valiants raced into a 2-0 lead, the Stoke fans had seen enough and were baying for his blood. Eventually they surged onto the pitch, but Roose had sensed the animosity and fled the ground with the angry mob in hot pursuit, the cold depths of the River Trent his only means of escape.

A broken wrist against Newcastle curtailed his season, and to a major extent, his career. Unable to regain his form, he had short spells with Aston Villa and Woolwich Arsenal where he mentored the younger players around him. Upon his retirement in 1912, the FA convened the Rules Review Committee and ratified a change to Rule 8 to stop goalkeepers handling the ball anywhere other than the penalty area. No reason was given, but many saw it as a way to ensure the game would not see the likes of Leigh Richmond Roose again. 

As for Roose, when World War I broke out in 1914, he immediately signed up and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Here he was able to put to use the skills he had built up alongside his more illustrious career. His time in Gallipoli, Turkey, instilled a desire to stand alongside his compatriots and play his part on the front line. On his return, he signed up with the Royal Fusiliers and headed for France. A clerical error in his registration saw his name entered as Rouse, and with no evidence of an ‘L.R. Roose’ anymore, his family was wrongly informed that his life had been lost on the Turkish peninsula.

Since the 9th regiment of the Royal Fusiliers consisted of men half Roose’s age, his tales of galas in London and battles with centre-forwards captivated his comrades. He played the father figure to young men who wouldn’t see their parents again, let alone live to become one. Roose’s bravery and dedication to these men saw him awarded the Military Medal after 36 hours of incessant fighting with the enemy. In an attempt to break the stalemate, the Germans sent in the flammenwerfers to end the British resistance. With no rifle at hand, Roose held the enemy at bay by raining grenades down on them, his strong throwing arm a huge point of pride for the ‘Prince of Goalkeepers’.

Only two weeks after the news Roose would be rewarded for his bravery, he and the majority of his regiment were killed at Gueudecourt on the 99th day of the Battle of the Somme, his body lost in the mud and smoke of the battlefield.

It took 87 years to find out the truth about his death. Welsh football historians and Roose’s biographer Spencer Vignes tracked down an ‘L.R. Rouse’ on the sombre Thiepval Memorial monument in northern France, a permanent reminder of the 72,246 British and South African servicemen who died during the horrific four-month battle and have no known grave.

A request to the Commonwealth War Graves Commision to correct the spelling was refused until the weathered section needs replacing, which leaves the man known as football’s first playboy without not only a final resting place but also a place amongst the men he fought alongside. Football remembers, though, with a plaque commemorating his life and career unveiled at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground in 2016, exactly a century after his death 

By Matthew Evans  

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