The strains of God Save The Queen have died down by the time a local businessman, standing on a 3m-high plinth in the middle of a town-center car park, tosses a leather ball into a vast sea of bodies.
Hundreds of men of all ages and builds, wearing a combination of rugby jerseys, hoodies and fleeces, grapple and tussle — in fact, use any means necessary — in frenzied attempts to grab the ball.
And so begins one of Britain’s most cherished, fabled and downright bizarre sporting traditions.
Played annually on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday ever since the late 1600s, and maybe even before, the Royal Shrovetide soccer game sees thousands of locals from rival sides of a sleepy market town in central England take part in a chaotic and often brutal contest.
The aim: To “goal” the ball against scoring posts situated in the middle of a shallow river and 4.8km apart at either end of town. Injuries and black eyes are common — there have been broken legs and reportedly heart attacks, too. However, it is worth all the pain to have bragging rights over your fierce rivals for the next 12 months.
Do not underestimate its importance to the locals.
“It’s chaos, it’s like a riot — an organized riot,” says Dave Leigh, a pub landlord in Ashbourne. “But they live and die by it.”
The game is regarded as a carry-over from the “mob football” matches played in the Middle Ages. These matches are believed to have spawned the global sporting phenomenon that is soccer, as well as rugby.
Many British towns have played Shrovetide down the centuries, but Ashbourne is one of the few to carry on the tradition. Only twice has it been canceled, in 1968 and 2001 — both times because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. It continued through both world wars.
And it has had the royal seal of approval — in 1928, the then-Prince of Wales (who would later become King Edward VIII) threw in the ball to start the game. In 2003, Prince Charles had the honor of being the so-called “turner-up.”
“Plenty of people seem to have tried over the years to stop this great tradition of Shrovetide,” the prince said hours before the 2003 game. “But even over the two world wars, the men on active service wrote asking it should be carried on. Now why was it that they did that? Because, they said, it was one of the things they were fighting for, part of the old traditional England that has survived innovations and inventions.
“All I can say is you’ve got to keep it going, somehow or other,” Prince Charles said.
Ashbourne, a quaint, picturesque town in the central English county of Derbyshire, virtually shuts down for the two-day event. Schools and businesses are closed. Shops on the high street and other nearby thoroughfares are boarded up to stop their windows getting smashed. Signs approaching the town center state: “Cars are parked at their owners’ risk.”
The only businesses doing a brisk trade are the pubs, from which locals spill out to watch the start of the game at 2pm.
Soccer greats Brian Clough and Stanley Matthews are other famous names to have been the “turner-up” over the past 50 years, but on Tuesday, the honor was given to Stuart Lees. He was nominated for the role because of his charity and fundraising work, as well as 30 years’ work for the local fire brigade.
He was carried, shoulder-high, through the throng of spectators and players to the plinth and started renditions of Auld Lang Syne and the national anthem — sang loud and proud by everyone in the vicinity. He then launched this year’s event.
“It was unbelievable, seeing a complete car park full of people. It’s mind-blowing,” Lees said moments later. “Nothing else in the world compares to this — it’s a tradition that must never die.”
Players from the two teams — the Up’ards and the Down’ards — fight to gain possession of the ball as they move through Ashbourne in what is basically a giant rugby scrum. The game is self-policed, has only a few loose rules — including no conveying the ball in a vehicle and no play in churchyards — and the competitors do not wear uniforms.
So how do you know who is on whose team?
“Born and bred,” Leigh said. “You can just tell by the face.”
On Tuesday, it took nearly two hours for the swarm of players to move out the car park, through a housing estate to a fire station, into the River Henmore and over the other side. Thousands of spectators followed the scrum, screaming when they caught a glimpse of the ball.
There are unlikely to be more than two or three “goals” by the time the game finishes at 10pm on Wednesday. The scorer is treated like a king, carried on the shoulders of his colleagues into the town center.
“I’ve scored before,” said Simon Hellaby, a 46-year-old Up’ard. “It was up there with the birth of my kids.”
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