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The Royal Shrovetide Football Match occurs annually on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday in the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire, England. It has been played since at least the 12th century, though sadly the exact origins of the game are unknown due to a fire at the Royal Shrovetide Committee office in the 1890s which destroyed the earliest records. However, one of the most popular origin theories suggests the macabre notion that the 'ball' was originally a severed head tossed into the waiting crowd following an execution.

A view from inside the hug taken at the 2006 Royal Shrovetide Football Match by Gary Austin
(More photos available via External Links below)

Contents

Overview

The game is played over two days on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, starting each day at 2.00 pm and lasting until 10.00 pm. If the goal is scored (in local parlance, the ball is goaled) before 5.00 pm a new ball is released and play restarts from the town centre, otherwise play ends for the day. Despite the name, the ball is rarely kicked, though it is legal to kick, carry or throw it. Instead it generally moves through the town in a series of hugs, like a giant scrum in rugby, made up of dozens if not hundreds of people.

The two teams that play the game are known as the Up'Ards and the Down'Ards. Up'Ards traditionally are those town members born north of Henmore Brook, which runs through the town, and Down'Ards are those born south of the river. There are two goal posts 3 miles apart, one at Sturston Mill (where the Up'Ards attempt to score), the other at Clifton Mill (where the Down'Ards score). Although the Mills have long since been demolished part of their mill stones still stand on the bank of the river at each location and indeed themselves once served as the scoring posts. In 1996 the scoring posts were replaced once again by new smaller mill stones mounted onto purpose-built stone structures, which are still in use to this day and require the players to actually be in the river in order to 'goal' a ball, as this was seen as more challenging.

The actual process of 'goaling' a ball requires a player to hit it against the mill stone three successive times. This is not a purely random event however, as the eventual scorer is elected en route to the goal and would typically be someone who lives in Ashbourne or at least whose family is well known to the community. The chances of a 'tourist' goaling a ball is very remote, though they are welcome to join in the effort to reach the goal. When a ball is 'goaled' that particular game ends.

The game is played through the town with no limit on number of players or playing area (aside from those mentioned in the rules below). Thus shops in the town are boarded up during the game, and people are encouraged to park their cars away from the main streets. The game is started from a special plinth in the town centre where the ball is thrown to the players (or turned-up in the local parlance), often by a visiting dignitary. Before the ball is turned-up, the assembled crowd sing Auld Lang Syne followed by God Save the Queen. The starting point has not changed in many years, although the town has changed around it, consequently the starting podium is currently located in the towns main car park which is named Shaw Croft this being the ancient name of the field in which it stands

The game has been known as Royal since the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) turned-up in 1928. The Prince suffered a bloody nose. The game received 'Royal Assent' for a second time in 2003, when the game was once again started by the Prince of Wales, in this instance HRH Prince Charles. On this occasion, the Prince threw the ball into play from a raised plinth.[1]

The game is played with a special ball, larger than a standard football, which is filled with Portuguese cork to help the ball float when it inevitably ends up in the river. It is hand-painted by local craftsmen specially for the occasion, and the design is usually related to the dignitary who will be turning-up the ball. Once a ball is goaled it is repainted with the name and in the design of the scorer and is theirs to keep. If a ball is not goaled it is repainted in the design of the dignitary that turned it up and given back to them to keep. Many of the balls are put on display in the local pubs during the game for the public to view, traditionally these pubs are divided by team (The Wheel Inn being a popular Down'Ard base for example).

Roll Of Honour

Since 1891 a "Roll of Honour" has been kept documenting both the turner-up and scorer of each game played. It can be seen from the list that the event has only been cancelled twice during that time, once in 1968 and again in 2001, both times due to the outbreak of Foot-and-mouth disease. Even during both World Wars the games were played, indeed the Ashbourne Regiment even played a version of the game in the German trenches during the First World War.

Visitors to Ashbourne can view the full list at The Green Man Hotel where it is displayed on a series of wooden plaques that are updated yearly.

The Rules

There are very few rules in existence. The main ones are:

  • Committing murder or manslaughter is prohibited. Unnecessary violence is frowned upon.
  • The ball may not be carried in a motorised vehicle.
  • The ball may not be hidden in a bag, coat or rucksack etc.
  • Cemeteries, churchyards and the town memorial gardens are strictly out of bounds.
  • Playing after 10 pm is forbidden.

Local Dialect

The following are words and phrases you'll likely hear if ever you attend the game, with a brief explanation of their meaning:

Turner-up
The person that starts that day's game
Hug
The scrum like formation that naturally forms as the Up'Ards and Down'Ards battle for the ball
Break
When the ball is released from the hug and play moves quickly
Runners
Players that wait on the outside of the hug for the ball to break in order to collect the ball and cover as much ground as possible in the direction of their teams goal. There are selected runners for each team and they train regularly throughout the year, usually by running from goal to goal.
River Play
As the name suggests this is reference to the sections of the game played in the river, as with runners there will be members of the team that specialise in river play, it is possible for the entire game to be played solely in the river.
Clifton
The Down'ards goal location
Sturston
The Up'ards goal location
Duck
Local colloquialism used as a friendly greeting, for example "Do you know where the ball is, duck?", comparable words from other regions would include "mate" or "pet'".
The Green Man
Name of the pub/hotel were the pre-game dinner is hosted and speeches given, the public can view this event on TVs outside. When it comes time to start the game the players enter the venue and hoist the turner-up in the air and carry them to the starting post.
Shrovie
Slang for the term Shrovetide
"Down wi' it"
A term often shouted by many onlookers supporting the Down'ards, mainly women.

The Anthem

The anthem is sung at a pre-game ceremony in a local hotel. It was written in 1891 for a concert held to raise money to pay off the fines ordered for playing the game in the street.

There's a town still plays this glorious game
Tho' tis but a little spot.
And year by year the contest's fought
From the field that's called Shaw Croft.
Then friend meets friend in friendly strife
The leather for to gain,
'And they play the game right manfully,
In snow, sunshine or rain.


Chorus

'Tis a glorious game, deny it who can
That tries the pluck of an Englishman.

For loyal the Game shall ever be
No matter when or where,
And treat that Game as ought but the free,
Is more than the boldest dare.
Though the up's and down's of its chequered life
May the ball still ever roll,
Until by fair and gallant strife
We've reached the treasur'd goal.


Chorus

'Tis a glorious game, deny it who can
That tries the pluck of an Englishman.

Films and Media

The game attracts a large audience from around the world. The event is often attended by reporters and documentary makers from several European Countries, along with those from the USA and Japan.

Recent appearances on UK television include Blue Peter where the presenters experienced the game for themselves and on gameshow They Think It's All Over where it was featured as the "Unusual Sport" and later in the show some local Down'Ards appeared on the "Feel the Sportsman" round.

The 2006 games were attended by a Los Angeles film company acquiring footage for the upcoming docu-film being Produced and Co-Directed by Peter Baxter called Wild In The Streets. Due for release in the USA in 2010 it will also premier at the local Ashbourne Cinema.

With an estimated budget of US$450,000 it is arguably the highest profile coverage of the sport to date. As well as using 2006 footage the film will also use archive footage including the film of the 1928 game featuring Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) turning up the ball. In addition as a thank-you to the town council and for the welcome received during their three-week stay, the film company has offered to preserve the old film, working in conjunction with the English Arts Council.

The film is being distributed by Ocule Films and links to the official sites can be found below.

References

  1. ^ The Times, 20 February 2008

External links

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