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Lost in France: The Remarkable Life and Death of Leigh Roose, Football’s First Superstar

In 1914 one of Britain’s most famous sportsmen, former Sunderland goalkeeper Leigh Roose, went off to play his part in the First World War. Like millions of others, he would die. Unlike millions of others, nobody knew how or where - until now. 

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Leigh Richmond Roose - a hero of the first world war
These Football Times

At 1.45pm on Saturday 7 October 1916, one of the most famous sporting faces in Britain climbed from an Allied trench near the French village of Gueudecourt and began running towards lines of German soldiers armed with guns.

His name was Leigh Richmond Roose; goalkeeper, scholar, playboy, maverick, Lance Corporal, and the proud owner of an impressive twenty-four Welsh caps at a time when the international diary consisted of just three matches a year against the Home Nations.

Leigh, along with almost 200 of his comrades in the 9th Royal Fusiliers, was never seen again. His body was either blown to smithereens or sank into the mud where he fell. To this day, it has never been found. Sadly, Leigh’s remarkable story perished with him – until recently, that is.

Gareth Bale holds a picture of Leigh Roose - a Welsh hero
FAW Cymru

The son of a Presbyterian church minister, Leigh was born in Holt near Wrexham on 26 November 1877. A graduate of Aberystwyth University, Leigh was that rarest of things – a middle class man participating in a working class sport.

For over a decade prior to World War One he was regarded as the best goalkeeper in Britain by some distance, playing for a number of clubs - including Sunderland - where he acted as last line of defence from 1908 until 1911.

When the Wearsiders famously beat Newcastle 9-1 at St James’ Park in December 1908, Leigh was the man between the sticks. Not only that, but he got to keep the match ball as well (that’s a whole other story in itself!).

Leigh was also one of the game’s pioneers.

Ever wondered why goalkeepers are only allowed to handle the ball inside their penalty areas? Well that’s because of Leigh.

Until 1912, goalies were free to bounce the ball with their hands up as far as the halfway line before releasing it. In reality few risked doing this for fear of losing possession and being made to look like idiots. Leigh, however, did it all the time to the immense frustration of the powers that be at the Football Association. They believed it gave Sunderland and his other clubs an unfair advantage and ruined the game as a spectacle. Cue the rule change which banned goalies from using their hands outside the penalty area.

From 1914 until 1916, Leigh served with the YMCA in England, France and Gallipoli manning what were known as recreation centres, providing soldiers on route to the fighting with respite and refreshments.

Then in July 1916, at the age of 38, he joined the 9th Royal Fusiliers and found himself thrown into the Battle of the Somme.

Just to confuse matters his surname was misspelled by a recruitment officer, becoming Rouse instead of Roose. One slip of a pen would prevent his family from discovering Leigh’s fate. No matter how hard they looked for information about Leigh Roose, nobody with that name existed in the War Office records.

As a journalist and author, I spent more than a decade piecing together Leigh’s incredible life and the circumstances surrounding his untimely death.

The result is my book, Lost In France, released in October 2016 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his passing.

Imagine Paul Gascoigne with a brain, then throw in George Best’s playboy excesses for good measure. That was Leigh. But, my word, how he was brave as well. To die in those circumstances, he had to be.

Lost In France: The Remarkable Life and Death of Leigh Roose, Football’s First Superstar by Spencer Vignes is published by Pitch Publishing, priced £8.99, and can be purchased from Amazon by clicking here.

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