It’s Euro 2016 and Wales is in the finals! Historian Mike Rees looks back into Wales’ sporting history to remember goalkeeping legend Leigh Roose, who found glory on the football field and died a hundred years ago, at the Somme.
Mike Rees’ book Men who Played the Game looks at the development and importance of sport in Britain and the Empire leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, and the part played by sportsmen in the conflict.
On the eve of Wales’s participation in the finals of a major international football tournament for the first time since 1958, it is likely many of you may be reflecting on past glories achieved by Welshmen on the football field.
You might well consider the achievements of Wales first ‘football superstar’ Billy Meredith, talisman of both Manchester City and Manchester United in the early years of the twentieth century or the ‘Gentle Giant’ that was John Charles, revered from Swansea to Turin where he won multiple league championships and cups as the focal point of a brilliant Juventus team. More likely, you’ll consider the incomparable Ryan Giggs, with his sack full of medals, or the striking prowess of Ian Rush or Mark Hughes. But as Gareth Bale, the latest Welsh superstar, graces the football stadiums of France this summer how many will remember Leigh Roose, the first renowned Wales goalkeeper and predecessor of Jack Kelsey in 1958 or Neville Southall in the 1980’s and ‘90’s? As we move towards the centenary of Roose’s demise on the battlefields of the Somme, perhaps it is time to ensure that a new generation is made aware of the exploits of this remarkable Welshman.
The process of remembering Leigh Roose has already begun. Pupils from Wrexham are creating a collage with a particular focus on his part in the first international match to be caught on film, the game between Wales and Ireland at the Racecourse, Wrexham on 2nd April 1906. This will be displayed in Eagles Meadow shopping centre, Wrexham and bring his name to many for the first time – recognition that is long overdue.
Leigh Richmond Roose was born at Holt, near Wrexham on 26th November 1877, the son of a Presbyterian minister, the fourth of five boys. Despite losing his mother to cancer at the age of four, he had a comfortable middle class upbringing which led to him gaining a degree in Bacteriology from UCW Aberystwyth in 1899. Leigh enjoyed his time at ‘Aber’, particularly his experience of playing for the town football team in his favourite position, that of goalkeeper. So successful was he that in February 1900 he was chosen to play for Wales in the match against Ireland, the first of his 24 caps. A host of professional clubs sought his signature but by now Leigh was working in King’s College, London, fully intending to pursue a medical career. In the summer of 1901, however, he relented and signed for Stoke.
It was not long before this six foot, thirteen stone athlete made his mark. He became known for his reckless bravery, total dominance of his penalty area, his startling reflexes and resulting shot-stopping. Playing often as a modern day sweeper, Leigh left the confines of his area to start attacks, carrying the ball to the half way line, as he was permitted to do. So effective was this tactic that in 1912 the laws were changed in order to prevent goalkeepers handling the ball outside the penalty area. Leigh was also prepared to impose himself in other ways. It was not uncommon for him to be involved in the occasional scuffle or dispute with authority, sometimes over his travel expenses, on other occasions, disputes with the opposition. Leigh was also an entertainer – his gymnastic ability used to swing from the crossbar when things were quiet at his end of the pitch. Crowds loved him, even more so when Wales won their first Home International championship in 1907. Although top league and cup medals eluded him, Leigh was always challenging for honours at Everton from 1904 and later at Sunderland. He became one of the country’s best known footballers whose lifestyle as an eligible young man in Savile Row suits predates David Beckham by ninety years. His affair with the ‘Queen of the Music Hall’, Marie Lloyd would delight the tabloids of the 21st century. However nothing lasts for ever and, following a spell as player coach at Arsenal, Leigh retired to his medical commitments and the after dinner circuit in 1912.
When war broke out Leigh joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was quickly despatched to the Dardanelles where he served in Gallipoli. Here he worked in hospitals treating hundreds of serviceman injured in that futile encounter. However Leigh wanted to see the action for himself and, following his return to London, he joined the 9th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. His wish for action was soon granted. Leigh was awarded the Military Medal after he had taken part in the capture of Ration Trench near Dainville and the subsequent resistance to the German counter-attack. In October 1916 Leigh was once again in action. The 9th Royal Fusiliers advanced on the Albert-Bapaume Road and this led to the capture of Le Sars but the cost was disastrous. Three hundred and thirty two officers and private soldiers were killed or injured in the action. Leigh was seen running across No Man’s Land firing his gun with no concern for his own safety. He was last seen lying in a crater, probably already dead. Leigh’s body was never discovered and he is remembered, his name engraved and incorrectly spelt, on the Thiepval Memorial to the missing. Thirty eight year old Leigh is one of the 72,000 names remembered on that most impressive of memorials.
Leigh’s death was keenly felt by all who knew him. Mike Rees, in his recent book Men Who Played the Game, quotes the Athletic Times which described him as “dexterous though daring, valiant though volatile”. But Rees also concludes that this is only part of the story and that Leigh Roose, along with Billy Meredith, did more to put Welsh football on the map than any other player. That, coupled with his ability to entertain thousands of spectators, demands that he be remembered as a sportsman of real significance, one who died as bravely as he played. During this summer of exciting Welsh football, a century after Leigh made the ultimate sacrifice, he deserves to be remembered.