Note: This piece was written before Glyn’s other Long Read about the life and career of Jack Roscoe.
One of the greatest goal scoring centre forwards who ever played for Lancaster Town, for South Liverpool and for Prescot Cables.
Neville Walker, From Slacky Brow to Hope Street
When the FA changed the offside rule in time for the 1925-26 season, thus reducing the number of defenders between the lead attacker and goal from three to two, an avalanche of goals ensued. The total number of goals scored in the Football League increased by 1673 from 4700 in 1924-25 to 6373 in 1925-26. That’s a rise of just under 36%. In the English First Division the increase was more like 43%: 1192 goals in 1924-25 compared with 1703 in 1925-26. That’s a rise of 511 or 1.11 goals per game. The new era witnessed the emergence of high-scoring superstar centre-forwards like Dixie Dean of Everton, who as every schoolboy knows broke the First Division record in 1927-28 (the third season played under the new rule) by scoring 60 league goals. His overall total for Everton, between 1925 and 1938, was 349 goals in 399 matches or a goal in 86% of matches played. Not that his scoring rate went unchallenged. His contemporary Hughie Gallacher of Newcastle, Chelsea, Derby and Notts County scored 275 goals in 388 matches or a goal in 72% of matches played. Other First Division target men of the period include Gordon Hodgson of Liverpool, who scored 233 goals in 358 matches (a goal in 63% of matches played) and Birmingham’s Joe Bradbury (249 in 414 matches – 60%). An almost identical pattern emerged in the Lancashire Combination, where goals increased from 1252 in 1924-25 to 1775 in 1925-26. That’s a rise of almost 42% or a tad over one goal per game. And there was a centre-forward similar to Dixie Dean: a man who in the nine seasons between 1930 and 1939 scored in the region of 483 goals: 127 for Lancaster Town in just two seasons, over 159 for Prescot Cables at various times in the 1930s, and a staggering 190 for South Liverpool in three-and-a-half years. His name was Jack Roscoe.
(Incidentally, the offside rule was amended again in 1990, allowing an attacking player who was level with one of the two remaining defenders to be ruled onside. Like the 1925 amendment, this was intended to encourage attacking play. In fact, average goals-per-game in the Premier League for the 2013-14 was just 2.77 – a little above the 1924 and 1925 figures but significantly below the 3.69 of 1926, the 3.61 of 1927 and the 3.82 of 1928. If we compare the same seasons in the Lancashire Combination with the Evo-Stik First Division North we end up with: 1925-26: average 4.671 goals per game; 1926-27: 4.774; 1927-28: 4.805; and 2013-14: 3.714 – very close to the 3.618 of 1923-24 and the 3.661 of 1924-25. I guess the game has changed a lot in the intervening 99 years!)
It is almost certain that this remarkable man was the ‘John’ Roscoe born in Prescot on 22 October 1909 and registered in the 1911 Census as a one-year-old child residing at 33 Saggersons Court, Moss Street. Recalling her childhood soon after the Great War, Mrs Jane Bishop, a lady now in her nineties still living in Moss Street, locates Saggersons Court behind Eaton Street on the site of what is now Aron Court. My brother David Williams tells me that the small drive-in at the side of Ray’s Bakery on High Street was once ‘Saggersons Garage’. The old ‘North Court’ street sign can be seen on Ray’s wall. The Victorian courts of Moss Street are long gone and now replaced by small housing estates, all of them with names recalling earlier times. In addition to Aron Court, there are also Rio Court and Seddons Court, the latter named after the bakery and grocer’s shop formally on St Helens.
According to the 1911 Census, 33 Saggersons Court was a six-room dwelling (Mrs Bishop refers to them as ‘cottages’) occupied by eleven people. Jack’s parents were William Roscoe (1867-1944), a mechanic specialising in making watch tools, and Elizabeth nee Whittle (c1870-1929). Jack had six brothers: James (born c1892), an assistant glass bottle blower; Thomas (born c1894) and Samuel (born c1896), who both worked as ‘carrier to the bottle blower’; William Baden Redvers (born c1901) and Joseph (born c1903), who were still at school; and Nathaniel (born c1908), a three-year-old still living at home. (William Baden Redvers Roscoe’s extravagant name was no doubt inspired by those two military heroes of the Second Boer War Lord Robert Baden Powell and Sir Redvers Henry Buller.) Jack also had three sisters: Sarah Jane, who was born about 1893 but died aged 18 shortly before the census took place (her name is scratched from the record); Lilian Anne Jane, a schoolgirl born about 1899; and Elizabeth (born c1906) who, together with Nathaniel and baby Jack, were still at home with their mother.
We know nothing about Jack’s schooling. Like his contemporary the goalkeeper Horace Whalley, born in Prescot just seven months before Roscoe on 29 March 1909 (see Cables programme for 14 December 2013), his early football career included spells with Rainhill Recs and Everton. The young Roscoe also turned out for Prescot Vics. There is no record of Jack playing for any of Everton’s teams, but he must have come across Dixie Dean and been inspired by the great man’s legendary scoring prowess. A role model, indeed. Later press reports describing him as Dean’s ‘understudy’ are without foundation. The young centre-forward moved from Goodison Park to New Brighton in the late 1920s and arrived at Prescot Cables, whose ground was located a literal stone’s throw from home, in time for the 1930-31 season. He was reunited with Whalley, who had signed for Cables a year earlier, and the two youngsters had the privilege of playing alongside ex-Liverpool veteran defenders Don McKinlay and Jack Bamber (see Cables programme for 6 October 2012), McKinlay serving as captain during Roscoe’s first season (1930-31) and Bamber a year later. While Whalley was stopping goals at one end of the pitch Roscoe was finding the target regularly and often at the other, scoring 59 goals (plus five for the reserves) in 1930-31, These included a hat-trick in a Lancashire Junior Cup replay at Horwich RMI: a foretaste of many more hat-tricks to come. The first half of the following season was spent at Rotherham United. Despite finishing the 1930-31 season 14th in the Third Division North, Rotherham had struggled to be re-elected and obviously keen to recruit a high-scoring centre-forward. The acquisition of Roscoe did not work out. It is not known how many goals he netted for the Yorkshire club, but Roscoe was soon back at Hope Street, scoring an astonishing 50 goals ‘in little more than half a season’ (Walker). For the third year running Cables finished the 1932-33 season as Lancashire Combination runners-up. They had finished second to Darwen in 1930-31 and 1931-32 and to Chorley in 1932-33. Roscoe finished the 1932-33 season with 50 goals. Players and management must have asked themselves the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’ For the ensuing 1933-34 season the club decided to try its fortunes in the Cheshire County League and Jack Roscoe signed for Lancaster Town.
While Roscoe was banging in goals-a-plenty for Cables during the first three seasons of the 1930s, Lancaster Town, as a team, had promised much but delivered little. The team had finished fourth in the Combination in 1930-31 and 1931-32 but a disappointing eighth, eighteen points behind champions Chorley, in 1932-33. Roscoe’s impact was instantaneous. Scoring 57 goals in his first season (1933-34), he helped his team edge up to third position. 1934-35 witnessed a remarkable double: the Lancashire Combination Championship, with 60 points and a total of 143 goals, and an astonishing personal tally of 67 goals for Roscoe – a Combination record. Lancaster Town went on to win the Lancashire Combination again the following season (1935-36), with 63 points and 142 goals. But it was without Jack Roscoe. Perhaps Jack possessed a mysterious sixth sense telling him where to go next in search of team and personal honours – a sense that led him to Cables in 1930, Lancaster in 1933 and South Liverpool in February 1936.
In signing Roscoe, whose orgy of goal-scoring has, at various times, attracted the envious eyes of League Clubs, the [South Liverpool] Directors believe they have solved the centre-forward problem that has caused such worry since the commencement of the season’
From a press clipping included in John Whittingham’s South Liverpool FC scrapbook
South Liverpool had re-formed and been accepted into the Lancashire Combination in time for the 1935-36 season, and after a short spell back at Cables Roscoe had signed for them by February 1936. As everyone at Holly Park hoped, Jack ‘continued to perform scoring miracles’ (Walker), netting 27 goals in little more than three months. His first full season (1936-37) ended with another double: the Lancashire Combination Championship for South Liverpool, with 69 points and an astonishing 177 goals, and 49 goals for Roscoe. For once, we know how Roscoe’s goals were distributed between league and cup matches: 36 goals in the league and 13 in cup competitions. But the most peculiar match for Roscoe during the 1936-37 season was at home to struggling Northern Nomads at Holly Park on 14 December 1936. In the words of the following day’s match report,
ROSCOE, South Liverpool leader, scored five times in the Lancashire Combination game against Northern Nomads at Liverpool yesterday. Each goal was ruled offside. He did not score a legitimate goal in South Liverpool’s 4-1 victory.
I believe this strange match speaks volumes for Roscoe’s attacking style. Here was a centre-forward constantly striving for goal, causing defenders to retreat and supporting players to advance with him. It’s a style of play unknown to later deep-lying strikers and shows an unashamedly selfish – perhaps even gung-ho – quest for goals.
The 1937-38 season included an FA Cup second round tie against Brighton and Hove Albion of the Third Division South. Inevitably, it was Jack Roscoe who scored South Liverpool’s only goal in a 1-1 draw at Holly Park on Saturday, 11 December 1937. The goal was captured in a cartoon by George Green and shows Roscoe deftly flicking a 16th-minute Tom Jones corner into the net. The goal earned his team a replay on the south coast four days later on Wednesday, 15 December. Playing No.15 at a time when players were numbered 1-22, Roscoe was described as follows in the Brighton match programme:
JACK ROSCOE – Centre Forward, 5 ft. 8 ins., … Generally averages a goal a match, and this season has scored 23 in as many games. A dashing leader, with a powerful shot, he was with Lancaster Town and Prescot previously.
South Liverpool lost the tie 6-0.
Like his old Prescot team-mate Horace Whalley, Jack Roscoe’s build and facial features (especially the attacker’s prominent nose) provided plenty of scope for local cartoonists. That other master of the pen-and-ink sketch Bert Wright reported on a Lancashire Junior Cup match on 29 January 1938 in which South Liverpool beat Rossendale 5-0 and Roscoe scored yet another hat-trick. ‘ROSCOE SCORED THREE’, the caption went. ‘HE ALWAYS USES PLENTY OF HAIR OIL SO THAT THE BALL WILL GO INTO THE NET LIKE GREASED LIGHTNING’. A week or so later, on 9 February 1938, Roscoe notched up five goals (none of them ruled offside this time) when South Liverpool defeated Southport of the Third Division North in a Liverpool Senior Cup match at Holly Park. South Liverpool won the tie 7-0. Roscoe was on a roll. Another hat-trick came on 26 March, when he contributed half of South Liverpool’s six goals to defeat Lancaster (now ‘City’) 6-2 in the final of the Lancashire County Cup at Deepdale, Preston. On 2 May 1938 he broke his own record of 67 goals by scoring two goals in another 6-2 victory, this time in a league match against Marine. With the Lancashire Combination championship in the bag for the second successive year, South Liverpool had one remaining league match – at home against Morecambe on 7 May. Under a local press headline ‘Roscoe ‘Goes to Town”’:
The match proved an individual triumph for Roscoe, who secured six, a feat he has never accomplished before in his football history, to bring his total to 75 for the season and 151 in his two-and-a-half seasons with South Liverpool.
‘The stuff that dreams are made on’, indeed! Actually the report is wrong about Roscoe having never scored six goals in a match prior to this one. He netted six for Cables in a 10-0 FA Cup victory against Harrowby on 23 September 1935. It happened to be his old pal Horace Whalley’s wedding day. Roscoe may not have been the best man in church but in the eyes of cartoonist George Green and the crowd at Hope Street he was certainly the best man on the field.
South Liverpool’s proud supporters must have looked forward to the start of the 1938-39 season with relish. Yes, Europe teetered on the brink of war, with Hitler’s Third Reich annexing Austria and invading Czechoslovakia. All the more reason for them to seek solace in the prospect of watching what was arguably the best non-league team in the country and without doubt the crowned prince of goal-scorers. On the surface Roscoe seemed happy. In the South Liverpool centre-half Salmon and his old Cables team-mate Tommy O’Brien, a colleague at Prescot BI who played alongside him at Holly Park, he had at least two good friends. Travelling from Prescot to Garston may have been an inconvenience at times but it was a lot easier than the long train journey to Lancaster. He’d married Lucy Welsby in 1934, leading to the birth of daughters Joan (born 1935) and Eileen (1938). So why was he reduced to playing in South Liverpool’s reserve team in a Liverpool County Combination match against Formby on 17 December 1938? The match features in http://formbyfchistory, where Roscoe is described as ‘currently out of favour for first team selection and kicking his heels in the reserves’. Perhaps Roscoe was in dispute with South Liverpool’s directors. Perhaps he felt that 75 goals in one season had earned him a pay rise. Or perhaps he was just recovering from injury. We will probably never know. His absence from the first team did not last long. By the end of the season he had played in 37 matches and scored 39 goals – not as many as the previous year but outstanding by any standards. For the third time on the run South Liverpool ended the season as Lancashire Combination Champions: 62 points, 137 goals. They also won the Lancashire Junior Cup in a 3-0 victory against Wigan Athletic at Anfield on Wednesday, 19 April 1939. But their greatest achievement, not just of the ‘Roscoe era’ but in the club’s entire history, came at Wrexham two weeks later on 4 May when they beat Cardiff City 2-1 in the final of the Welsh Cup. In an interview for Hyder Jawad’s book Holly Park – The Lost Years (1991), Jack Roscoe describes the reception awaiting the players back in Garston:
Many thousands were in the ground when we went back to Holly Park at two o’clock in the morning. We couldn’t believe it. We were expecting the streets to be deserted but in the end we couldn’t even get into the ground ourselves.
It proved to be Roscoe’s last match for South Liverpool and penultimate match in his roller-coaster nine-year career. By the start of the 1939-40 season South Liverpool had acquired the services of Arthur Frost, a former New Brighton and Newcastle United centre-forward (who went on to manage the team after the war), and Jack was back at Cables. He played in just one match, scoring two goals at Bacup Borough on Tuesday, 29 August. War was declared five days later and soon after that the nation’s football programme closed down for the duration. Nothing has so far turned up about Jack’s war service. He would have been aged 30-36 during the conflict and even if he survived unscathed would have been a little long in the tooth to pick up from where he left off in 1939. Despite his exploits at Lancaster and South Liverpool he remained essentially a Prescot man. He and his family lived in Williams Street, off Kemble Street. According to Neville Walker, he served as Secretary of the Cables Supporters’ Club in 1945 and 1946 and played ‘in several of the annual Boxing Day charity matches that were a popular feature at Hope Street until 1954’. It was due to him that Harry Boydell signed for South Liverpool soon after leaving the RAF in 1952. Jack was a regular face at the ex-players’ reunion dinners organised by Bert Taylor and held each year at the Dean’s House and was present at the Cables Centenary Dinner at the Prescot Social Club on 1 December 1984. My brother David recalls him later in life as the ‘lovely guy’ who marked the board at Webb’s Betting Shop in Prescot. According to Phil Taylor he lived in a pensioner’s flat on Cross Street, Prescot later in life. He died in October 1996, a few days either side of his 87th birthday.
Nearly sixty years earlier, when South Liverpool and Roscoe rode the crest of several waves, a local newspaper published lines of verses praising the team’s accomplished players, concluding with its remarkable centre-forward.
The last upon our list of names
Is [the] one and only Roscoe,
The goalies wish when he turns out
That Roscoe was in Moscow.
A much better tribute, at least in terms of language, comes in this slightly adapted quotation from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
He was a man, take him for all in all,
We shall not look upon his like again.
I am indebted to South Liverpool President John Whittingham for allowing me free access to his remarkable scrapbook covering Roscoe’s years at the club and to Mrs Jane Bishop for helping me to locate the former site of Saggersons Court.