Sunderland and Port Vale player, maverick and war hero – the remarkable Leigh Roose story

On Sunday November 11th 2018 the 100th anniversary of the end World War One takes place. Less importantly, Port Vale take on Sunderland. It’s then surely appropriate to celebrate a World War One hero who played for both clubs.

Leigh Roose is one of those remarkable humans who seemed to exist only in comic books, living a larger than life existence. This is his story…

On the 7th October 1916 the Germans repelled an attack by Allied forces. Unbeknown to them, charging towards their line that day was one of England’s most famous sportsmen. Leigh Roose was killed that morning and his body was never found.

A pioneer on the pitch

Leigh Roose
Leigh Roose (uncredited comtemporary photograph)

The Welshman had been a goalkeeping pioneer. Born in Wrexham he was widely regarded as the country’s finest keeper. In fact, his throwing was so accurate and powerful that the FA changed the rules (restricing goalkeepers to only handling the ball in their own box) to restrict the impact of Roose’s throw-outs.

Roose was different. He remained an amateur player at a time when most footballers were professional. A natural crowdpleaser he would put on “gymnastic displays” on the crossbar when play was at the other end of the pitch. He would salute the crowd if he saved a penalty. The press were gushing in their praise. This piece by the Athletic Times was typical:

Supporters 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…

A maverick off the pitch

Off the pitch, Roose was hugely popular. The Daily Mail named his as the country’s second most eligible bachelor, behind cricketing legend Jack Hobbs. He led a glamorous life, buying Saville Row suits and keeping a central London apartment. He had an relationship with a famous music hall star – Marie Lloyd. Roose was definitely box office.

As for his playing career, Roose started in the Welsh Leagues before signing for Stoke City in 1901. One story about Roose’s time at Stoke City sums up the man. Missing the team train for a match he hired his own private train (in those days private trains were readied for the very rich to hire) and travelled down on that. On being handed the £31 charge (a fortune at the time) he told the railway company to bill the football club.

He had a two-year spell with Sunderland between 1908 and 1910. He helped the club to two consecutive second-placed finishes before (according to reports) “single-handedly” keeping the club from relegation. He then joined the Valiants in 1910. As a guest for the club his impact was immediate.

His impact on Port Vale

Leigh Roose
Leigh Roose (copyright expired image)

On 23 April 1910, Roose, by then a very famous former Stoke player, guested alongside Herbert Chapman for Port Vale in a match against Stoke Reserves. It would decide the winner of the North Staffordshire and District League.

Roose not only insisted on playing against his former club while wearing his old Stoke shirt, but aroused the ire of the 7,000 crowd with his breathtaking ability.

The media reported that he

Saved every shot with such arrogant ease that the furious crowd spilled onto the field, only the brave intervention of the local constabulary saving him from a ducking in the River Trent.

In the course of the match, Stoke’s chairman, the Reverend A.E. Hurst, ran onto the pitch to appeal for calm and was knocked out by one of his own forwards. The result was appealed to the Staffordshire FA, which declared the championship void, and Stoke City’s ground was closed for the first fortnight of the 1910–11 season. Roose is reported to have said that he had believed the game to be a friendly and had not realised a championship was at stake.

He also had spells with Celtic and Aston Villa in addition to winning 24 caps for Wales.

A war hero

Then, in 1914, World War arrived. Typically of the man, Roose volunteered at the outset of the war, first serving in the Medical Corps and then joining the Royal Fusiliers. On the Western front, his goalkeeping skills were found to be invaluable as he took on a role as a grenade thrower.

Roose was duly awarded the Military Medal for his exploits in repelling a flame thrower attack. A report said:

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.

Promoted to lance corporal, Roose’s death occurred in 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. He was killed advancing on enemy trenches and his body was never recovered. Nevertheless, his spirit, his character and his bravery still live on today.

Want to find out more?
Lost In France: The Remarkable Life and Death of Leigh Roose, Football’s First Superstar by Spencer Vignes can be purchased from Amazon by clicking here.

Leigh Roose (1877-1916) Forever Valiant