Leigh Richmond Roose: Sunderland’s maverick sweeper-keeper

“Think Paul Gascoigne with a higher IQ, then throw in George Best’s playboy excesses for good measure.” – Spencer Vignes.

Remembrance of one Leigh Richmond “Dick” Roose in Sunderland is rather scant. I’m willing to bet that if his name was put to a group of Sunderland fans on a match day not many would recognise his name – not entirely surprising when you consider that the Welshman kept goal on Wearside over one hundred years ago.

 Roose had an incredible career before joining Sunderland. He was, at one time, considered the best goalkeeper in Britain. Roose was described as “The Prince of all goalkeepers” in Athletic News and has been subsequently dubbed as “Football’s First Superstar” by his biographer, Spencer Vignes.

Roose had a brush with Sunderland prior to joining the club. On February 10th 1906 Roose’s Stoke City lost 1-0 to Sunderland at Roker Park. Whilst enjoying a post-match meal, the Stoke players found themselves the recipients of a torrent of abuse from a Sunderland fan. Raising from his chair, Roose went over to the man and punched him in the face. The case was brought to the Football Association and Roose was banned for fourteen days.

The hilarity continued when Roose was chosen as Ted Doig’s replacement and was signed by Sunderland in January, 1908. Almost as soon as he began to turn out for the Wearsiders, rumours began to circulate that the club were acting illegally in their payments towards him.

 Football in this period was still an amateur sport, meaning that football clubs were only permitted to pay a player’s expenses, players were not permitted to receive a salary.

The Football Association requested that Roose submit a list of his expenses for the 1907-08 season. Roose made a mockery of the FA displayed disdain towards the amateur system by listing his expenses as including: ‘a Pistol to ward off opposition” along with a “coat and gloves to keep warm when not occupied” and “using the toilet (twice)”.

Roose was also famed for his luck with the ladies. The Daily Mail dubbed him “London’s most eligible bachelor”. In 1909 he began a high profile and controversial with the married music hall star, Marie Lloyd. Lloyd would often be seen in the crowd when Sunderland played in London and Roose was a regular at Lloyd’s concerts.

According to a 1939 Sunderland Echo article Roose was able to pickup a fully inflated football with one hand / Wales Online


As well as being a maverick off the pitch, Roose’s unusual playing style wowed crowds up and down the country. Decades before the term ‘sweeper-keeper’ became vogue, he would spend much of his time outside of his penalty area. In Edwardian times, it was within the rules of Association Football for goalkeepers to handle the ball outside of their box. Law 8 stated:

The goalkeeper may, within his own half of the field of play, use his hands, but shall not carry the ball.

Roose developed his game accordingly and would bounce the ball up to the half-way line to launch a successful attack with a well-placed kick or throw. As Spencer Vignes explains in his book detailing the goalkeeper’s exploits:

This was perfectly within the letter of the law, though few goalkeepers risked doing it for fear of either leaving their goal unattended or being steamrollered by a centre-forward. It became a highly effective, direct way of launching attacks and Leigh used it to his side’s advantage whenever possible.

Roose’s maverick playing style made him a firm favourite at Roker Park – he kept goal for Sunderland in their stunning demolition 9-1 of Newcastle at St. James Park in 1908, solidifying him as a club legend.

However, the FA were less than impressed. In 1912, the FA changed the rules and restricted goalkeepers to handling the ball only in their own box. The rule change was a direct response to Roose’s successful tactic.

He would also turn his back on play to tell jokes to the fans, and perform gymnastics from the goal crossbar while the ball was at the other end of the field. Traits that were not in keeping with the Victorian ideals of gentlemen amateurism which underpinned Edwardian Association Football. Amateur players of the period were expected to follow the“Corinthian Ideals” of fairness and honor in competition which were valued above victory or gain. Leigh Roose challenged these conventions.

Roose left Sunderland following a broken wrist sustained in another game against Newcastle in 1909, and as a result the Mackems decided he would not be unable to regain full fitness and decided not to employ him for the 1910-11 season. That year he played games for Celtic, Huddersfield Town and Aston Villa before going on to join Arsenal as a player-coach in December, 1911.

Roose was extremely highly thought of on Wearside, a testimonial was arranged in his honour which, according to the Sunderland Echo was oversubscribed and £40 was raised for Roose (£4,421 in today’s money).

The Welshman returned to Roker Park with Arsenal in 1912 and dazzled the Sunderland faithful with some stunning saves. Roose evidently felt a strong connection to the Mackem faithful. At the end of the game he threw his Arsenal jersey into the Sunderland crowd and spent over 20 minutes walking around the perimeter of the pitch shaking hands and talking with spectators.

Roose transferred his footballing skills to the Somme and served gallantly in the First World War, winning the Military Medal for bravery. His supremely accurate and effective grenade throwing skills meant that Roose was promoted to Lance Corporal in September, 1916.

Tragically, in October, 1916 during an attack on the German trenches at Gueudecourt Leigh Roose was killed. Former amateur footballer, Gordon Hoare saw him running towards the enemy at full speed in No Man’s Land, while firing his gun. Soon afterwards, another soldier saw Roose lying in a bomb crater. His body was never recovered.

Former Wales and Everton goalkeeper, Neville Southall, speaking to Wales Online in 2016 best sums Roose up:

What makes you climb out of a trench and run towards a machine gun knowing that you are almost certainly going to die? The more you think about it, the madder it gets, and yet he did it. You’ve got to be a special person to be able to do that.

A stark reminder that we must remember and honour Leigh Roose and his comrades sacrifice. Roose’s name is commemorated on a plaque at Aberystwyth University and is among the 72,195 missing servicemen on the Thiepval Memorial.

Remembering the fallen in the First World War is of imperative importance. The First World War was essentially, as Sebastian Faulks describes, a ‘holocaust of young men’ which could have been avoided.

We must not forget the closeness of the three principle monarchs of the age. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany; King George V of England; and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Wilhelm and George were first cousins, George and Nicholas were also first cousins, and Wilhelm and Nicholas were third cousins. There is also evidence to support the claim that Queen Victoria died in the arms of her eldest grandson – Wilhelm. Millions of young men, like Roose, died at the behest of an interrelated European aristocracy.

Sunderland AFC must endeavour to remember Leigh Roose and by extension honour the human sacrifice in the First World War.

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive and Welsh Newspapers Online for providing the opportunity for independent research on Leigh Roose’s exploits. I must pay tribute to the research and works of Spencer Vignes and John Simkin who make remembrance of Leigh Roose’s footballing career and life possible. Also, a nod to Richard Callaghan who wrote about Roose’s exploits for Roker Report last year.

Leigh Roose was aged just 38 when he was killed in the First World War.


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