Books | For centuries, life has had its uppies and downies

Hornby distinguishes among various football traditions, characterized by the frequency of play: “Obviously the Uppies and Downies games are annual events. At the other end of the spectrum you would have the daily, casual kickabout in the schoolyard or in the street predominantly by younger boys. To some extent in between you will have weekly play perhaps in the chuchyard or in a field next to a churchyard, between younger men within each community. In effect that is the beginning of the weekly fixture list which is the staple of modern sport.” Eric Midwinter in Parish to Planet writes that the annual games, due to their distinctiveness, are better known for having been commented on by chroniclers of the time:

Below that higher level of occasional celebratory action dwelt a lower, less considered but more imperative type of football. It scarcely registered on the radar of the literate scribes of the age because of its very ordinariness. This was the daily or weekly disportment of tiny groups of boys or young men who would randomly foregather for what later generations would call a kickabout.

More significant to historians is the range of behavior associated with the festival contests, “the ways in which people enjoy football, dressing up, singing, processing, drinking—the banter and the badinage that goes on around the games,” says Hornby. Folk traditions deserve credit for establishing the idea of major sporting events, such as an FA Cup final or Super Bowl, as time set apart from the norm. In concept, the idea meshes perfectly with Shrove Tuesday, or the Feast of Fools, and its inversion of regular procedures. Relationships and rule are subverted. Flag-waving, flambeaux-lighting, chanting and other small subversions in football stands worldwide, by sometimes unruly rooters from all lands, might reach back to the mass football traditions of Britain’s streets and pastures. Hornby says:

If you imagine a larger urban environment and several hundred players perhaps, it might be considered a threat to order and prosperity. But of course that’s the whole point about Carnival and Shrove Tuesday. It’s the one day in the year when the ordinary man and perhaps woman is allowed to act the fool, take over for 24 hours, on the clear understanding that that’s the one exception and that the following day, as Lent gets under way, things will return to normal and they’ll behave themselves.

Hornby has discovered references to other customs that date back further than previously believed. As early as the 15th century common ground was set aside for camp-ball, a sport featuring teams of equal numbers competing for defined time periods. “Goals were pitched at the distance of 150 or 200 yards from each other,” reads an 1823 description. “These were generally formed of the thrown off clothes of the competitors.” Hornby flags this as the first instance of using “jumpers for goalposts.”

Festival games, of course, begin with a ball, such as that of the Royal Shrovetide game in Ashbourne. The hand-painted cork-filled balls of Ashbourne—held here by former player Dave Mellor on 6 Feb 08—are pieces of art in their own right. (© Andy Savage |

Early football forms employed kicking and handling. Period lithographs and paintings (see the work by Carse below) show Uppies and Downies players kicking the ball, but, in Scotland especially, the handba’ variety gained ascendancy to keep a check on damages. That the games occur in public areas, in countryside and on roads, helps distinguish mass-participation football from the codified forms. No one has lined fields of play in festival football, although shopkeepers do board the windows. Rarely do referees adjudicate. Terraces with barriers to separate participant and watcher do not exist. Anyone wandering by can be swept up into the action. Hornby notes that those lacking zeal for the heat of the scrum—from which steam clouds billow upward in cold conditions—can contribute “at the back of the sway in pushing in the right direction.”

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