In the small, picturesque Derbyshire town Ashbourne they brace themselves every Shrove Tuesday for one of the most extreme football matches that you never believe happens.
I was lucky enough to cover the game for the local radio station and from the very start, when everyone is sat together eating their meals, the two day game was key in the town.
There aren’t a lot of rules to go with this game. When the game was first started in ancient times there was only one rule, “Do not murder.” The game has developed more rules since.
The main rules of the game are:
Keep the ball out of churchyards, the cemetery and the Memorial Gardens,
Do not trespass on other people’s property,
You must not intentionally cause harm to others,
The ball must not be hidden in bags or rucksacks,
The ball must not be transported in, or on, motorised vehicles,
A goal is scored when a player gets the ball to their own goal and tap the ball on the goal three times.
(The Down’ard goal at Clifton)
The game is played between Up’ards and the Down’ards, decided by which side of the river you live on in the town.
And finally, you may think of football as a simple 11v11 game but not on this occasion, the teams consist of how many people turn up on the day. Yesterday had hundreds of people at the start.
The game starts at 2 o’clock on the Tuesday and finishes at 10 in the evening if no goal is scored.
If a goal is scored before 5:30 then the game restarts from the town plinth. After 5:30 then the game is finished for the day.
The same is done on the Wednesday.
This doesn’t refer to the people arriving to play the game.
Turning Up is when the person chosen throws the ball from the plinth into the hordes of people waiting to play the game.
In 1928, Shrovetide Football gained the title of “Royal” when the then Prince of Wales turned the ball in to start the game.
The ball is turned in by two different people on each day.
The ball is a specially painted ball that is bigger and heavier than your usual football.
The ball is designed and painted due to the person that is turning the ball in.
Similar to the Turner-Upper the ball is changed on each day so a fresh, new ball is turned in to start the game on both Tuesday and Wednesday.
Once the ball is in play then the chaos begins with what the locals call “the hug.”
Hundreds of people swarm onto the balls location and start pushing the ball towards their own goal in a much larger, rougher rugby scrum.
“The huggers” spend the start of the game trying to move the opposition huggers then move the ball into a space where “The runners” can take the ball and make up ground quickly.
The ball is moved around the village either in the Hug, by a runner kicking or carrying the ball or players swimming through the fish pond or wading through the river.
Players often struggle when the ball is lost during play, there are a large number of numbers around the town of Ashbourne where the ball can be hidden or lost.
This years Shrovetide was a simple 1-0 win for the Down’ards. The goal was scored by Richard Smith at 8:42pm on the Wednesday.
The celebrations and reaction of Smith showed to me how scoring, and winning, is extremely important to the people of Ashbourne.
After his goal, Smith was lifted on his teammates shoulders and taken back into the centre of Ashbourne where he is awarded the match ball at The Green Man pub followed then by a lot of drinking and celebrating by the Down’ard players.
If you wish to follow the Shrovetide games in future years you can hear live updates on local radio station Ashbourne Radio.
By Liam Amos