Leigh Roose; war hero, dare-devil Arsenal goalkeeper

By Tony Attwood

Dr Leigh ‘Dick’ Roose was born 27 November 1877 and died in action on 7 October 1916

He joined Woolwich Arsenal as a goalkeeper from Aston Villa in September 1911 – it was his final season in football.   His transfer was as much a publicity stunt as anything else, for Dick Roose was just about the most famous footballer in the country at the time – an absolute showman who the crowds would turn out to see.  Henry Norris was looking for every way possible to boost interest in Woolwich Arsenal at the time, so signing the most famous player in the country – even if he was at the end of his career – was a good way to do it.

Roose was not only a dare-devil performer, he would swing from the cross bar, and on occasions even climb on the crossbar, he’d turn away from the game and chat to the crowd, he’d comment to the crowd on how he was going to save a penalty before  the ball was struck, and he’d bow and wave after a save.

Roose played for Arsenal as with all his clubs, as an amateur which rather than meaning he got no money for his games (as “amateur” implies) he got far more money than the professionals.  For what he got was “expenses”. While the regular players got a wage, he was paid for getting too and from the match – and quite a few other things as well.

Prior to Roose’s arrival Arsenal’s last home crowds were 15,000, 3,000, 8,000. The 15,000 was against Everton who were top of the league.

For his first game against Middlesbrough on 16 December 1911 a crowd of 11,000 which was more than normal for a match against a mid-table team in the depths of winter.  (These games kicked off at 2pm or 2.15 to allow for the light, and  many men found it hard to get to the ground after the morning shift, in time for the match).

Roose then had a break but returned in February and 14,000 turned up against Bolton, 12,000 against Man C, 15,000 against WBA and 15,500 against Man U.

After that Arsenal ended the season with games against three distinctly inferior opposition and crowds were, as normal with such clubs, smaller.  Of the last three clubs Arsenal played that year at home – all with Roose in goal, Preston and Bury were relegated and Notts C missed relegation by two points, and the crowds were 8,000 and 10,000 (twice).

What these figures show is that Roose quite probably did have some impact on the crowds at the Manor and it was in the order of about a 10% increase over what might have been expected.  The cost of the player would have been exceeded by the extra gate money.

Incidentally it also shows that the old tale about Arsenal’s prime problem being low crowds because of the remoteness of the ground from central London was only partially true.  If we look at March, by way of example, Arsenal’s away crowds were  8,000  (Oldham) 5,000 (Sunderland) and 10,000 (Everton).  At home they got 12,000 (Man C)15,000 (WBA) and 15,000 again in the first match in April (Man U).

Arsenal were getting higher crowds at home than away – an interesting perspective.

But back to Roose.  He played 13 times, his last game being 27 April 1912 at home to Notts County.  Arsenal lost 0-3, which is a sad send-off for a personality goalkeeper.  Overall Arsenal won seven of the games he played in goal, drew one and lost five.  Arsenal ended the league 10th in the first division.

Leigh Roose was born in Holt, near Wrexham, the son of a minister.  He was educated at Holt Academy where HG Wells was a master and later graduated from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and studied bacteriology at Kings College London.

He started his football career at Aberystwyth in 1895, and was then signed for Stoke from which era the picture below was taken.

As he moved from club to club he gained the reputation of being a super-hero in goal, not only through being a good keeper but also being a highly eccentric player.  His clubs not only took in Football League teams, such as Stoke and Everton, but also in 1910 Celtic for whom he played one game – the cup semi-final, which they lost to Clyde.  During this game he is reported to have shaken the scorer of one of the Clyde goals to congratulate him on the quality of his shot.

From 1900 he played for Wales and won 24 caps – his last cap being during his time at Arsenal when he played against Scotland in March 1911.

His playing style was described as eccentric, daring and genius.  At the time keepers were allowed to handle anywhere in their own half, but most stayed on the line, as the last line of defence.  Roose was one of the few who took advantage of the rule by running out of goal with the ball and throwing or kicking it accurately to an attacker.  Reports suggest he was also not averse to violently shoulder charging the opposition out of the way so he could run forward with the ball.

He played in an era where the delicacies of today’s game did not exist, and keepers were not protected and nor were the forwards who came up against them.  Goal mouth incidents were more akin to rugby than football; Roose was big and powerful and is said to have used verbal aggression as much as physical.

Indeed it is reported that he could punch and kick the ball further than other keepers of the era and had amazing reflexes and showed a certain recklessness in his style of play.  He was in short, Gordon Banks, Pele and a street thug rolled into one and many reports suggest that the rule change in the summer of 1912 which stopped keepers from handling outside of their own penalty area, was directly a result of Roose’s exploits.

Jimmy Ashcroft, the Woolwich Arsenal keeper in the early years of the century, of whom we have written before himself wrote in praise of Roose.

“Last season when Stoke played Arsenal at Plumstead, I watched the Reds swoop down on Roose like a whirlwind. There was a scrimmage in goal and Roose was down on the ball like a shot with a heap of Arsenal and Stoke players on top of him. It was all Lombard Street to a penny orange that the Reds would score. Presently from out of the ruck emerged Roose clinging to the ball, which he promptly threw away up the field. I’ll bet that the thrill of triumph which went through him was ample compensation for any hard knocks he received.”


Roose in 1905.

Roose also left some of his own thoughts in print.  In the four volume work Association Football and the Men Who Made It he wrote,

“A tall man able to get down to low shots is certainly preferable to a short one, for he can reach shots that no little man can get near, and if his bigness in stature is combined with weight he will find occasions on which his height and weight will prove of great advantage to him; yet he should not come under Dryden’s description: ‘Brawn without brain is thine.’ He should possess quickness of eye and hand, activity and agility, and be as light on his feet as a dancing master. It’s not much use for a man who can only move ‘once in about two months’ trying to defend a space 24 feet wide and 8 feet high against shots coming in from all possible directions, and when there is only a fraction of a second allowed to get a ball and get rid of it, by either kicking, catching or throwing out, or punching away with forwards on top of him.”
To a goalkeeper alone, is the true delight of goalkeeping known. He must be an instinctive lover of the game, otherwise goalkeeping will take it out of a man if he is not devoted to it.”

But we must remember that Roose earned his livlihood through being known. He encouraged stories about him as it upped the fee he could command as an after dinner speaker, and it is not clear that many of the more famous stories told of him were actually true.

The Football League (at least according to the legends Roose spun around himself) only tried to take him on once, by questioning his increasingly outrageous expense claims that made him the most highly paid footballer in the League.  He presented a list of costs including buying a newspaper to keep himself amused when his team were attacking, and the cost of two visits to the toilet.   Making the report public he dared the League to take on one of the few men who on their own could attract the crowds.  They declined the fight and backed off.

At least, that’s how Roose let it be know that the story played out.

He was also known the feign injuries like broken fingers and yet play on “for  the sake of the team”.  He was in fact the absolute showman – and even more so when he started a scandalous affair with Marie Lloyd.  He was also known to shout, swear and pick fights on and off the pitch much to the dismay of those trying to uphold the good name of the game.

In 1916 he joined the Royal Fusiliers and was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the first major action that he saw in the trenches.  He died tragically in the Battle of the Somme and the body was not recovered.

His life in league football…

Stoke 1901-4 81
Everton 1904-5 18
Stoke 1905-08 50
Sunderland 1908-11 78
Huddersfield 1911 5
Aston Villa 1911 10
Woolwich Arsenal 1911/12 13


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