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Shrovetide Football at Alnwick, Northumberland

Happily there are several surviving and thriving examples in this country of traditional football games – at Ashbourne in Derbyshire for instance – one of the finest being the Shrove Tuesday event at Alnwick in Northumberland.
Records show that the game dates back to 1762, the first written mention, but it is probably far older than that. Legend (inevitably it seems) has it that the original ball was the head of a raiding Scot, but whether or not that is true is open to debate. Until 1825 the match was played through the streets of Alnwick, but broken windows and general roughness saw that banned, replaced with the fixture as it now takes place in a muddy field across the River Aln from the lovely Alnwick Castle.
It was indeed the Duke of Northumberland at that time who rescued the event, providing the field as a venue once the streets had been denied it.
Today there is a set routine for the match. The ball to be used is thrown from the castle, then carried in a procession headed by the Duke’s Northumbrian piper to the field of play. The two teams are comprised of parishioners of the local churches, St Paul’s and St Michael’s, their numbers not defined by any rules, but there are enough involved to justify the use of a 200m-long pitch (and it used to be 400m). Think 14-18-15-9-3 as a formation rather than 4-4-2. The game is played with the feet and hands unlike many other traditional football contests. The goals in contrast to the pitch are far smaller than in association football, and their stanchions and bar are wrapped in greenery.
Ends are changed after half-an-hour without score, or after a goal. Whichever team scores two goals first (the goals being known as Hales) wins, and the game stops.

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