19 October 1901: London’s most eligible bachelor Leigh Richmond Roose makes his debut for Stoke
Leigh Richmond Roose, who was considered by many to be the greatest goalkeeper of his time, began his footballing career with Aberystwyth Town in 1895 after they had spotted him playing for the local university where he was studying medicine.
Roose had developed his own unique style of goalkeeping taking full advantage of Law 8 that stated that keepers could handle the ball anywhere in their own half, but not carry it. He would bounce the ball up to the halfway line and launch an attack with a throw or kick. As author Spencer Vignes points out in his book on Roose this was a risky business as the keeper could look foolish if he lost possession so high up the pitch, and although he would get occasionally caught he would use the tactic mostly to telling effect. Later in his career Roose was to ask why all keepers didn’t make use of this tactic, but as Sunderland player George Holley pointed out Roose was the only one who could confidently be expected to accurately find a team mate with his passes and throws and not give the ball away while so far away from his goal.
Roose was brave as well and would risk his own neck by launching himself headfirst to grab the ball off a forward’s foot. He was not afraid to play rough when necessary either as demonstrated in his debut for Wales on 24 February 1900 in a 2-0 victory against Ireland in Llandudno. He used the full force of his substantial 6 foot 1 inch and 13 stone frame in a challenge on the Ireland forward Harry O’Reilly that not only knocked him off the pitch but also knocked him out. In an age where forwards could lawfully charge keepers it was a case of the keeper getting his own back and the ref never even gave a free-kick.
1900 saw Aberystwyth have their most successful season as they won a treble of the Towyn Cup, South Wales Cup and Welsh Cup, but Reese, wanting to develop his medical career, moved to London to take a position as a trainee doctor at King’s College Hospital. While in London he played for the London Welsh and became a regular for the national side. Several clubs tried to get him to sign for them but he was determined to concentrate on his studies. That is until Stoke City made him an offer, which, despite signing as an amateur, meant he would be a well-paid professional in all but name. Stoke allowed him to stay in London and paid for his first-class travel expenses, put him up in the best hotel rooms, and helped with his rent and even his wardrobe bills to meet his penchant for Saville Row suits. He liked the high-life and was not afraid to live it and was a bit of a socialite with an eye for the ladies, making headlines for that as much as his football. Among one of his flings was a top music hall actress Marie Lloyd, who had popularised the song ‘my old man said follow the van.’ This in particular caused much interest in the gossip pages of the press as she was married.
His unorthodox ways won him a place in the Stoke fans’ hearts. Teammate Sam Ashworth remarked, “he plays like no other custodian in the land dares to play. That’s why he is the man he is.” Frederick Wall, then secretary of the Football Association, added that, “Roose was a sensation… a clever man who had what is sometimes described as the eccentricity of genius. His daring was seen in the goal, where he was often taking risks and emerging triumphant.” Roose, in fact could be said to have played the game more like a modern sweeper and gave the art of goalkeeping a great deal of thought. In an article in a 1906 publication, The Book of Football, he wrote “players with the intelligence to devise a new….system, and application to carry it out, will go far,” adding that “…if he cultivates originality and, more often than not, if he has a variety of methods in his clearances and means of getting rid of the ball, he will confound and puzzle the attacking forwards….”
His originality showed itself in all sorts of ways. In one game against Manchester City he feigned fear when facing a penalty by wobbling his legs, long before Grobbelaar did the same thing for Liverpool in the 1980s. The trick worked and the forward was distracted enough to miss the penalty leaving the celebrating Roose to be met with a barrage of objects thrown from the crowd by the irate Man City fans.
A taste of Roose’s style can be seen in a report in the Bristol Times that stated, “Few men exhibit their personality so vividly in their play as L. R. Roose…. He rarely stands listlessly by the goalpost even when the ball is at the other end of the enclosure, but is ever following the play keenly and closely. Directly his charge is threatened, he is on the move. He thinks nothing of dashing out 10 or 15 yards, even when his backs have as good a chance of clearing as he makes for himself. He will also rush along the touchline, field the ball and get in a kick too, to keep the game going briskly.” It seems he was not always “following the play keenly though” as he had a habit of chatting to the fans when the play was up the other end of the pitch, and on one occasion while playing for Wales against Scotland on 5 March 1910 he was beaten by a 40 yard shot from a forward who had spotted he had his back turned and was chatting to the crowd.
Roose stayed with Stoke until the final day of the 1903-04 season. The club had been experiencing some financial difficulties and had cut back Roose’s expenses, and after a mistake he had made had let Derby’s Steve Bloomer with an easy chance for a goal he felt it was time to quit and concentrate totally on his medical studies. His retirement was not to last long though, and by November he wanted to return to football and got a chance when Everton suffered a goalkeeping crisis with their first two choices injured and sick. An instant success he became the first choice keeper before an argument with manager William Cuff saw him leave to return to Stoke, a move that increased the attendance for his first game back by 300 per cent.
He continued his great form and in mid-November was named by the Daily Mail, who also had previously named him London’s most eligible bachelor, in their World XI to face a team “from another planet.” During this second spell with Stoke he was made captain of Wales in March 1906, something that he described as “the honour of honours.”
Despite Roose being at Stoke they were still struggling financially and he was soon to fall out with the management again over them cutting his expenses which among other things included claims for a dog-sitter although he had no dog. So at the beginning of the 1907/08 season he was off to Sunderland where he stayed for two seasons. Again he got the fans on his side by performing for them not just as a keeper but all-round entertainer. In one game against Aston Villa he managed to jump to tip a shot over the goal while simultaneously grabbing hold of the crossbar and flipping himself up on to it where he sat, taking the applause. Questions about his expenses were again raised though and when the FA asked him to compile a list of them he displayed his contempt for the question by listing, amongst other things, 4d received for a pistol to ward off the opposition, and 2d for going to the toilet.
In November 1909 Roose broke his wrist playing against Newcastle when the forward Albert Shepherd tried to kick the ball out of his hands and, not fully recovering, his career slid into decline and he drifted around a number of clubs, namely Celtic, Port Vale, Huddersfield and Villa. He was also dropped by Wales after having made 24 appearances. In December 1911 he signed for Arsenal as a player-coach and it was while he was here that a ‘lucky’ shirt that he had worn during Aberystwyth’s 3-0 win over Druids in the 1900 Welsh Cup final, and had worn unwashed as an undershirt for every game since, finally received a clean, albeit in error. It did not do him any harm though and he began to show glimpses of a return to form. On 23 March 1912 he was outstanding against his old club Sunderland at Roker Park and celebrated at the end of the game by throwing his shirt in the crowd and stayed behind for 20 minutes after the final whistle chatting to the crowd.
His career was nearing the end though and later that year when the FA, who had long frowned on Roose’s style of goalkeeping, changed the rules restricting the keeper to handling the ball only in the goal box he decided to quit after having played 285 games in England’s top division and commit properly to medicine. He still played on Saturday afternoons and between 1912 and 1914 he appeared for Aberystwyth, Llandudno, Festiniog and Horsham.
With the outbreak of war in 1914 he signed up for the medical corps, despite being yet to complete his medical degree, and worked in hospitals in France treating the wounded. In 1916 he joined the Royal Fusiliers and was sent to the Western Front where he was immediately involved in fighting. He won the Military Medal for bravery while fighting at the Somme in August 1916 when, despite being seriously injured in a flame thrower attack, he eschewed treatment to remain at his post and use his famed long throw that had launched so many attacks on the football field to launch grenades at the German positions.
Roose had written that a goalkeeper must have no regard for his personal safety and, “if necessary, go head first into a pack into which many men would hesitate to insert a foot, and take the consequent gruelling like a Spartan.” It was a display of such bravery that was to see his life taken on 7 October 1916 during an attack on the German trenches at Gueudecourt. Another footballer Gordon Hoare, who before the war had represented England as an amateur footballer, described how he saw Roose running towards the enemy at full speed in No Man’s Land while firing his gun. Soon afterwards, another soldier saw Roose lying unmoving in a bomb crater. His body was never recovered and this unique man became just another one of the millions who died in the First World War.