Folk football | Lenten rite when pancakes aren’t enough

The ball for the Shrovetide Tuesday match, like a lamb for the slaughter. Link to BBC Derby site.Ashbourne, England | Brendan Harwood, born south of the River Henmore in this Derbyshire town, goaled a ceremonial, cork-filled ball for the Down’ards at 2130 GMT today to complete a Shrovetide Tuesday football match that some believe has been contested annually for more than 1,000 years. A second match with the Up’ards takes place tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent.

Historians of sport have labeled the Shrove Tuesday game mob football or folk football. In Scotland the tradition exists of Ba’ or Baa’, a similar folk game held variously on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day or Yule Day (Jan 6). Described as a “moving brawl” with few rules (except to avoid the cemetery, town gardens and private property), the Derbyshire event has survived attempts to ban it in reaction to its fierce scrums and play in the river, in which at least one participant has drowned.

Goals in Ashbourne are three miles apart. The goals themselves are concrete plinths standing in the River Henmore. The goal scorer, chosen through the drawing of lots among the well-established families, taps the ball thrice against the plinth. Mark Spencer scored for the Up’ards 2000 and says only a “true Ashbournian” could appreciate the feat:

[A]n Olympic gold medal … or a World Cup winner’s medal is the only thing that would possibly come close to the pride and the honor that comes with owning one of these Shrovetide balls.

The folk games customarily have been seen as an evolutionary step in development of the modern game, although this theory has been called into question. Adrian Harvey, in Football: The First Hundred Years (2005), says the Shrovetide contests in popular imagination represent “the only form of football that was practised in the period previous to the dissemination of the codified variety that was created in the English public schools of the nineteenth century” (1). This notion, Harvey writes, is erroneous. He describes a 300-year history of smaller-sided, controlled games that are football’s true progenitors.

Update: The Spirit of Football site reminds us that Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger in his Tor! The Story of German Football (2002) mentions the attraction that the Ashbourne match had for Adi Dassler, the supplier of boots for Germany’s national team. Before the 1966 World Cup final against England, Dassler traveled to Derbyshire and unearthed an “age-old, mouldering football boot” (229) for his collection. The boot-obsessed Dassler lent his name to his shoe company, adidas, in 1948.

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