Moving the goalposts

Football has changed vastly since medieval times when games featured hundreds of players on fields spanning miles – but not everywhere.

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Out of the chaos and pandemonium of multitudinous scrambles for the ball, football has shaped itself through the centuries and become a regulated sport with internationally recognised rules. But the spectacularly chaotic affairs from the past do live on in rare places that were prepared to defy laws brought in at the start of the industrial revolution.

One such place is Ashbourne in Derbyshire where every year on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday the Royal Shrovetime Football match, which takes place over two eight-hour periods, involves every able-bodied man in the town who wants to join in. The result is a rough and slightly madcap event where the ball is frequently missing in a mass of sweating bodies.

“I don’t understand the tactics but the atmosphere is brilliant.”

“It’s chaos, mayhem and dangerous as the players rough it out with each other over large distances,” says football fan Shaun Bowler from Derby, watching for the first time this year. “I don’t really understand the tactics but the atmosphere is brilliant.”

The match dates back to at least 1667 but, because a fire destroyed the earliest records, its exact origins are unknown. This has parallels with the history of football more broadly in this country. Ancient historians were much more interested in revolutionary deeds and the dominant figures of kings and queens than the pastimes of common people, which they deemed unworthy of mention, so there is no certain record of when football was first played. It was instead left to modern writers to seek out minute references to football in order to piece together the history of the game that is now the most popular sport in the world.

There is no proof, for example, that football began in Chester during the Saxon period when locals gleefully kicked the severed heads of conquered Danes through the streets, but the ninth century Welsh monk and historian Nennius does make reference to a field, in the district of Glevesing, “where a party of boys were playing at ball”.

The earliest recorded Shrovetide game came after the Saxon period had ended and the Norman occupation was over a century old. Cleric William Fitzstephen, in 1175, noted that after dinner on Shrove Tuesday, “all the young men of the town go out into the [London] fields in the suburbs to play ball”. It is clear that this annual event had been going on for at least a generation and that the match took place on open fields and in rivers with the goals many miles apart.

In Ashbourne a person’s team depends which side they are born of Henmore Brook – a tributary of the River Dove, which flows through the middle of the market town on the southern edge of the Peak District. Around half of the 7,112 people that populate the town were present when Dr Dallas Burston started the 2017 proceedings at 2pm on Shrove Tuesday.

Ashbourne Shrovetide match
Main picture: Players in the river collide with spectators in the Ashbourne Shrovetide match, 2017. Photo: Nigel Roddis/Shutterstock. Above: similar scenes in Ashbourne in 1926. Photo: Getty

Most people were there to watch and cheer. It is difficult to calculate how many were playing for the Down’Ards – born on the south side of Henmore Brook, or the Up’Ards – born north side, but there were at least 400 players apiece. The figure doesn’t include the youngsters, whose schools are closed for the occasion and who try to get as close to the action as they can on the rare chance that the ball might miraculously come their way.

The Down’Ards try to goal the ball at the old Clifton Mill and their opponents try to score at the old Sturston Mill. The distance between the goals is around three miles.

John Ford, who commentates on the game for Radio Ashbourne, says that in the 40 times he has previously played he has never got anywhere near scoring a goal, this honour going to players who have played with great distinction over both days for many years. “But,” he adds, “I always loved the whole occasion, which is part of our national heritage and part of living in Ashbourne.”

Ford is the man to go to for explanation of the tactics involved in the match, which ends up being played in the dark if the action goes on past 6pm. Local shopkeepers take the precaution of boarding up their windows and doors to prevent any damage to their property.

In 1860 a group of Ashbourne locals were convicted for “riotous assembly” for playing football on Shrove Tuesday, but the inhabitants of the town still reassembled for the event 12 months later and it has continued ever since. The game received royal approval in 1928 when the Prince of Wales – later King Edward VIII – started the match by dropping the ball into the crowd of eager footballers from a stone plinth in a field – now the town’s main car park.

It was a feat considering the long history of attempts by the authorities to suppress the ‘beautiful game’. In 1314 Edward II forbade football altogether due to “the evil that might arise through many people hustling together”. Edward was concerned that young men were more interested in chasing a ball made from a pig’s bladder than practicing archery in preparation for war. It was a theme that Rudyard Kipling returned to when he attacked the “muddied oafs” in his Boer War poem The Islanders in 1902.

In 1389 Richard II passed another Act forbidding football and these were later re-enforced by Henry IV and Henry VIII. In Scotland, James III tried to banish the game, ordering it in 1458 to be “utterly put down”. In 1579 John Wonkell, of Durham County, was imprisoned for a week for playing football on a Sunday. Four years later the end of the world was predicted because football was being played on the Sabbath and was, according to authors Alfred Gibson and William Pickford, “causing necks, legs, backs and arms to be broken, eyes to start out, and noses to gush out with blood”.

The Puritans, a group of reformed Protestants, always viewed the game with great hostility, but Oliver Cromwell was a revolutionary who not only toppled the king and paved the way for parliamentary democracy – he also enjoyed football.

The game became even more popular after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 and the violence was renewed with additional vigour. Mass games were held regularly and in numerous locations but there were soon attempts to introduce rules, demanding an equal number of players on each side.

“Real players save their energy for later on when they can also use their knowledge of the fields more effectively.”

In 1829 the Metropolitan Police Act heralded the advent of modern policing and in 1835 Parliament banned football on the highways. The annual ritual football matches were successfully suppressed by the authorities, often by violent methods. In Dorking a determined effort by Surrey County Council ended a custom that was centuries old when they drafted in 100 police constables who, when the first ball was started by a notable townsman, made strenuous efforts to obtain possession. The game and the attempt of the police to prevent it went on for several hours with the large watching crowd jeering the police. Towards the end of the game a fight broke out, between some of the players and the crowd against the police, and there were injuries on both sides. Fifty Dorking townspeople were subsequently fined one shilling (5p) each for obstructing the highway, with the magistrate saying the match was “a danger to life”.

This historical event has yet to return to Dorking, and while the one at Ashbourne survives, and another in Workington which also takes place around Easter, most similar events elsewhere have ended. Instead, anyone interested in football must now turn their attentions to the innumerable clubs that have been established since Sheffield FC became the first official club in 1857. Sheffield in general has a strong claim to be the home of modern football as the city also played a major role in developing the rules that have made it possible for teams to face each other on a common front.

Because it inevitably ends in the river, the hand-painted Shrovetide ball is filled with Portuguese cork. If the ball is goaled, it is repainted with the name and design of the scorer.

Richard Hill, aged 19, says his dad, Andy, scored in 2005, and he hopes to follow in his footsteps. “I play both days for as long as I can and I am always knackered afterwards. I do try and do some training for the event but there are some runners who are a lot fitter than me. I have got Thursday off work to enjoy a few beers with my team mates and opponents and whilst I hope to make it into work on Friday that is not guaranteed. I’d describe the match as more of a rugby game because of the hug, like a giant scrum, although there is some kicking.”

The match started to a huge cheer with the ball immediately disappearing from view in the hug. When it did occasionally re-emerge the crowd roared its approval but after an hour the game had only moved around 100 yards from its starting location. Then the advantage started to belong to the Up’Ards as the action moved away from the town and on to muddy fields and into the brook, where one player, seeking to observe the best place to re-enter the action, brought down a tree branch as he crashed into the water before being taken away for treatment. Fortuitously, he appeared to be OK.

The rules of the game are very few but killing someone is outlawed and the game must end for the day if one side scores after 5pm. By around 4pm, John Ford felt sure that the Up’Ards would score and speculated whether their opponents would be better allowing them to do so before 5pm as then the ball would be restarted back at the car park, giving the Down’Ards time to equalise before 10pm.

As each side struggled to gain control of the ball steam poured up off the sweating bodies and, as darkness began to creep in, the tension intensified.

Local resident Patti Cust said she had been watching the match for over 25 years. “I love being out in the fresh air and bumping into people who I may not have seen for a little while. There’s loads of chat between the spectators. I have previously seen many goals being scored, mostly at night as the real players save their energy for later on when they can also use their knowledge of the fields and water more effectively to escape from their opponents.”

The Up’Ards Kurt “Goose” Smith goaled the ball at 8.20pm on Shrove Tuesday, giving his side a half-time overnight lead going into Ash Wednesday. With no goals scored on the Wednesday the Up’Ards thus won the game.

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