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Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football, Derbyshire

If only Premiership players showed some of the passion, loyalty and endurance the Ashbourne amateurs display in keeping their tradition alive and definitely kicking – each other on more occasions than the ball.
It is known that the game dates back to at least 1683, when there is a literary reference to it, but it is likely that the Ashbourne football event goes back far earlier, from various attempts by officials and even kings to stop such events. Happily they failed. One bloodthirsty (hurrah) explanation for the origin of the contest is that the ball was once the head of an executed man. As the game takes place during one of the few holidays our medieval ancestors would have enjoyed it may simply have been a bit of fun between rivals.
The rivals in question are those Ashbourners born north of the river Henmore (Up’ards) and those born south of it (Down’ards), though others are allowed to join in if they fancy a bit of exercise. A bit of exercise sometimes lasting eight sweaty and bruising hours that is.
The ‘pitch’ is three miles long, passing through the centre of the town, with stone markers at either end (on the river Henmore) serving as goals. At 2pm the ball, brightly painted and too heavy to kick being filled with crushed cork, is thrown to the throng, 1,000 or more strong, waiting in the centre of the (by now boarded-up) town. Though players can run with the ball, the game usually begins and often ends as a ‘hug’, a mass scrimmage slowly moving in one direction or another. There are few rules: use of transport not allowed, no hiding the ball in bags, no trespassing or venturing onto sacred ground, no murders, basic stuff really. Part of the tradition is the importance of certain local families who provide many of the best players, and by convention are the scorers (decided by lot when the ball approaches a goal) who in recognition of their feat get to keep the ball after it has been tapped three times against the goal.
If a goal is scored before 5pm another game is started. There is one game on Shrove Tuesday, another the following day, Ash Wednesday, but these days the games finish at 10pm if no goal has been engineered by then.
Anyone who thinks of this as some cutesy custom like maypole dancing is not getting the idea. It is played seriously, though generally with good humour. It usually takes place in horribly cold weather; much of the time in the icy river Henmore, and within the ‘hug’ there is scope for nefarious tactics. It is a real living contest, important to the players. Long may it continue, even in our health and safety obsessed times.

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