The strains of ‘God Save The Queen’ have died down by the time a local businessman, standing on a 10-foot-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 football 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 three miles apart at either end of town. Injuries and black eyes are common – there have been broken legs and reportedly heart attacks, too. But it’s worth all the pain to have bragging rights over your fierce rivals for the next 12 months.
Don’t 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.