Football for the Masses: 2 Days, 1 Ball, 3,000 Players

One thousand years, 3,000 players, three miles — welcome to Royal Shrovetide Football.

Every Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, the small market town of Ashbourne, in Derbyshire, England, becomes transformed from a sleepy rural idyll to the venue for perhaps the oldest game of football in the world — and one of the last relics of the mass football games that are the precursor of all modern footballing codes, from gridiron to soccer.

Over those two days in spring, a very English form of Mardi Gras takes place, as 3,000 players gather in the town center to take part in the annual Royal Shrovetide Football contest between Up’ards and Down’ards (the team names are a reference to the two sides of the River Henmore that runs through the town, and team affiliations tend to be determined by birth). On each day of play, around about lunchtime, a specially painted ball is thrown (“Turned Up”) to a mass of players from a brick platform in what was once a common field, and is now a municipal car park. From then until 10 p.m., the only rules governing the movement of the ball between the two goals — millstones set into the river banks three miles apart on opposite sides of the town — are the two rules that state that you can’t take the ball through the churchyard and you can’t put it in a vehicle. Other than that, and murder, that’s about it — as quaint English rituals go, this is not Morris dancing.

Yet the game is as traditional as any other more palatable historical English ritual. It’s claimed in the town that a version of the game has been played for over a thousand years (one origin myth locates it in a grisly pagan farmer’s fertility ritual played with a virgin’s head). I’ve seen references to AD 217 in some histories, though what’s known for sure is that Shrovetide games were played around the country at one point, and that the Ashbourne version can be verified back to at least 1667. Mass football was so popular in English towns at various times in the last millennium that a number of English rulers tried to stop it. Edward II banned these games by royal decree, for fear that too many men were playing the sport and injuring themselves — with the result that archery practice was being neglected. By Victorian times the control took a subtler form, as the rules were codified and sport became an ideological tool of industrial disciplining, before being exported and adapted around the world. Yet somehow the pre-Babel version of the game persisted in Ashbourne, surviving modernity, the draw of competing sports, and latterly globalization, to exist as a profoundly local version of a more universal urge to compete, then mythologize. The game even earned its royal seal of approval when Edward VIII turned the ball up in 1928.

The game, the lead-up to it, and the significance of it to this community are captured in a documentary, Wild in the Streets, by Peter Baxter, which gets its streaming release this week. The film, narrated by Sean Bean, explores a town where the game is embedded into the very fabric of the place, sometimes to an absurd extent. When I spoke to Baxter about the film, he himself appeared to have become so steeped in the players’ investment in their locale that he informed me that Bean grew up 27 miles from where the game is played (not 30, not 25, but 27 — to the participants in the game, who may refer to the other team’s goal as being located in “a shithole,” such distinctions matter).

In a sense, the enmeshed layers of civic obsession reminds me of the town of Odessa, Texas, described in the original Friday Night Lights, though the version that exists in Ashbourne is like an Italo Calvino construct, where for two days of the year, the prosaic concerns of small-town, modern English life are set aside for a full-blooded, medieval mass brawl in the streets, before returning to a norm of road repairs, supermarket runs, and milk deliveries.

Throughout the film there are allusions to tensions within the modern version of the town, where Apollonian order is represented in bylaws, ordered small-town commercial life, and new homes encouraging families to the area — an order that is disrupted by the raw Dionysian id of the game erupting through the streets over the course of two days each year. The juxtaposition is fascinating to watch — particularly in the early sequences of the game, which take place in the town itself before one team makes a break for the open fields and the goals. At one crucial staging point in the game, traffic lights flash impotently as a throng of humanity wrestles beneath them, the occasional incongruous D&G knit hat flashing in the mob. Elsewhere, homeowners watch from upstairs windows as their neighbors battle through gardens, rivers, and fields to touch a ball three times on a piece of stone.

Tim Baker, who for nearly two decades has decorated the 4-pound custom-made leather balls (stuffed with wood shavings so they float) used in the game, talked of the culture shock for people who move to town and have not grown up with the sport: “They see it as a barbaric game where beer-swilling men thump hell out of one another for a leather ball.”

Baxter, too, mentioned this resistance, but noted that the children of the new arrivals tend to get their parents involved, after playing playground versions of the game at school. As the film shows, it was ever thus — as one cheerful player matter-of-factly puts it to the cameras, “I moved here when I was 7, and I just loved it ever since I first saw it. First recollection was being kicked in the head in the fields … got knocked out, and that was it, I’ve loved it ever since.”

The passion for the game that Wild in the Streets communicates is what is perhaps most remarkable about the film. Baxter and his team follow the lives of several locals in the buildup to a game, and what’s striking is that this is not a historical reenactment, or something played self-consciously as a crude ancestor of more ordered and glamorous versions of the game, such as football, rugby, or soccer. This is a game that is loved and celebrated by its participants in its own right. What looks to the naked eye like a riot, and which in fairness shares many of the same properties, is also a game of tactics and defined roles. “Huggers” are like forwards or blockers who grapple for the ball, while “runners,” like wingers or running backs, are ready to receive and advance the ball at the edge of skirmishes, vaulting gates and hedges — and even launching decoy balls — as darkness falls and confusion reigns.

The climactic moments in the games, as captured in the film, include battles in fields that spill into the river, as a mass of players press toward one of the stones, where one of their number will be elected by a kind of brute democracy to “goal the ball” and enter Shrovetide legend. The goal-scorer will then be carried shoulder-high, brandishing the ball, back to the tiny Green Man Royal Hotel bar, where bloodied and battered opponents will buy each other beers, swap tales of injuries sustained and inflicted, then do it all again the next day.

At one point in the film a young man suggests that, given the choice between scoring a goal in this game and scoring the winning goal in a World Cup final, he’d choose this game. Certainly, goal-scorers, such as Down’ard Mark Harrison, become local celebrities. At one point he recalls the goal he scored in his youth:

“I’d already made my mind up that I was going to goal it, and came running up the river — at which point another Down’ard, bit older than me, decided that he’d like to goal it. We had a bit of an argument and I ended up smacking him, at which point he was floating down the river … hit it [the ball] three times and it was goaled. One of the greatest feelings of my life.”

These people have lived through all of the historical forces and developments that have swept through and changed the character of the town that serves as their playing field. Some of these are technological advances: the car (hence the traffic lights and the “no vehicles” rule); plate glass (the town’s shop windows are boarded up beforehand); the cell phone (in the film, at the climax of one day’s play, a man standing near one of the goals receives news on his phone of a goal scored three miles away — news greeted with a terse “Bollocks”). Some of the changes destabilize parts of the town — the closure of Nestle’s factory, for example, had an undermining effect on the Down’ards’ natural demographic constituency, while everything from a wine bar opening to tract housing developments can have an effect on the physical and psychological terrain on which the game is contested.

Yet Royal Shrovetide persists. At the climax of the film, a local reflects on the game as the camera shows steam rising off a heaving mass of bodies at dusk: “I think Shrovetide changes the town. It’s the people, though, that make Shrovetide — if they go, Ashbourne would just be a quieter place and people would come here on Ash Wednesday or Shrove Tuesday and go, ‘You know, there used to be a funny game played here.’ But I don’t think that’s going to happen. The people will keep it going — the town doesn’t, the buildings don’t — it’s the people.”

When I put it to Baxter that this sequence, which accompanies a reflective passage in Bean’s narration on the nature of sport and community, is maybe the heart of his film, he concurred: “You’ve got a document here that speaks to the core values of what organized sport is all about … It’s odd that a medieval game that’s still being played should be progressive, but it reminds us that the game binds this community together, at a time when in Britain, the U.S., all around the world people are really struggling for a true identity that they can call their own.”

Recently, I took a virtual tour of Ashbourne on Google Earth, moving around streets, past the town center bridge over the Henmore River, up to the traffic lights that mark that key point in the game, and back down to the raised platform where, in the film, a poacher’s son and 1975 goal-scorer named George Handley turned the ball up for that year’s contest. I thought about that little spot on Earth, temporarily violently contested then settling back to sleep for the year. Then I clicked back to the street view of my home in Brooklyn, where most days I try to keep alive my childhood support of a soccer team who play 3,000 miles away while engaging in the local version of my chosen footballing code. I thought about Twitter snark, message boards, foul and funny chants; about the myriad number of accents I hear proclaim affection for Manchester United or Barcelona within a mile from my home; and I thought about my own sentimental, probably misplaced but persistent desire to find a connection to home in sport. Then I think back to a quote from one of the players in the film:

“There’s probably more people climbed Everest than there has goaled a Shrovetide Ball. I don’t want to climb Everest.”

And in its sheer bloody-minded willingness to acknowledge that there’s a big world out there, but that it can’t compete with “this” (this game, this place), I get a guilty flash of recognition. Football … bloody hell.

Filed Under: Graham Parker