Leigh Roose’s Everton career lasted just months, but as one of the finest and most idiosyncratic players of his era – his goalkeeping in this short period very nearly brought Everton their second league title – his story is worth closer scrutiny.
A physically imposing figure, he was born in Holt, North Wales to a middle class family in 1877. His father was a Presbertyrian minister and friend of the writer H. G. Wells. Roose studied at Aberystwyth University and played for a succession of amateur clubs, where he earned a reputation as one of the game’s finest custodians. In 1900 he won the first of 24 Wales caps, and a year later made his league bow – now in his mid-twenties – with Stoke City.
His form in the Potteries earned him many plaudits. The Bristol Times described being impressed by ‘his vivacity, his boldness, his knowledge of men and things. He was, they wrote, ‘a clever man undoubtedly, but entirely unrestrained in word or action.’
Of his playing style, the newspaper recorded: ‘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 10 or 15 yards, even when his backs have as good a chance of clearing as he makes for himself. He will rush along the touchline, field the ball and get in a kick too, to keep the game going briskly. Equally daring and unorthodox are his methods of dealing with strong shots. He is not a model custodian by all means. He would not be L. R. Roose if he was.’
But like all great goalkeepers, Roose was also an unashamed eccentric. Despite playing in the midlands he continued to live in London, living the life of a playboy and using his footballing wage to help fund his lifestyle. Stories about his quirks abound. There was the time he missed the train to a match and so commandeered a private charter train – as was available at the start of the twentieth century – at enormous cost and sent the bill to the club. He feigned injury before matches to give opponents a false sense of security. He always wore dirty kit, but no one knew why.
Always one to forgo convention, in 1904, when seemingly at the peak of his career, Roose announced he was quitting football to train as a doctor. He left Stoke to study at Kings College, London, but soon missed the great game.
In November 1904 Everton were beset by a goalkeeping crisis. Billy Scott was absent with a shoulder injury, while his deputy George Kitchen was out with flu. On 17 November, Everton made an approach and Roose agreed to help out. ‘He is one of the finest, if not the finest, goalkeepers in the land,’ Scott told journalists. ‘At least I know my colleagues are in the best of hands. Leigh Richmond Roose won’t let them down.’
But Roose did just that, dropping a cross that led to the only goal of the game on his debut at home to table topping Sunderland. The result left Everton ambling in mid table. Lesser figures may have withered, but not Roose.
A week later he played in a 4-1 win over former club Stoke, saving a penalty from Frank Whitehead. It proved a turning point in Everton’s season. Everton won 12 and drew 3 of their next 16 games and by late January were top of the table. Their form saw them reach the semi finals of the FA Cup too, in which they were unfortunate to lose to Aston Villa in a semi final replay. Roose’s form was so outstanding that he kept both Scott and Kitchen out of the team.
But the Cup runs and earlier postponements ultimately proved a distraction. It left Everton needing to play their final four league games in nine days, including an infamously rearranged match against Woolwich Arsenal. Everton lost that, having traveled to London straight from the north west where Everton had played Manchester City the previous day.
Afterwards Roose had a bust up with Will Cuff, questioning the wisdom of playing so many important games so close together. He certainly had a point, but Cuff didn’t like his authority challenged and so restored Billy Scott to the line up for the final game of the season. Roose, who had never been dropped before, refused to travel with his teammates to the match and that was to prove the end of his Everton career. Although he later he wrote a letter of apology to Cuff, he received no reply.
Everton’s loss was the gain of numerous other clubs, including Aston Villa Woolwich Arsenal and Sunderland. He continued to play for his country and live the high life in London – in 1905 the Daily Mail listed him as the city’s second most eligible bachelor, after the cricketer Jack Hobbs – all the while fulfilling the maxim that goalkeepers are somehow different.
‘In other positions on the field, success is dependent on combined effort and the dovetailing of one player’s work with another,’ he once wrote. ‘With the goalkeeper, it is a different matter entirely. He has to fill a position in which the principle is forced upon him that it is good for a man to be alone.’
On the outbreak up of war in 1914, Roose signed up to fight for the British army. He was promoted to Lance Corporal and won a military medal for bravery, but never returned to Britain, having perished in the bloodbath on the Somme. It was a short but eventful life and Everton have encountered the services of few others like him.
Vignes, Spencer. Lost In France: The Remarkable Life And Death Of Leigh Richmond Roose Football's First Playboy. Stadia (2007)