What really happened when I went home to document the biggest game of football in the world?
Although I couldn’t see it at that particular moment, somewhere up ahead a ball made of Portuguese cork was being fought over by hundreds of men. Their aim was simple: to release it from the ‘hug’ and get it away to the fastest members of the team who were waiting anxiously nearby. My aunt, sensing my desire to see more of what was happening, lifted me up in to her arms for a better view and suddenly the epic battle of Royal Shrovetide Football became very clear.
Before me, hundreds of people were packed tightly together; their arms wrapped around the shoulders of the man next to them. Towards the centre of the crowd something seemed to be happening. The facial expressions of these men seemed intense; angry; focused. A column of steam rose continuously above them as their shoulders began to heave frantically. In the blink of an eye, the ball shot up in to the air and the huge crowd, screaming playfully, began to surge towards us. Within seconds a small group had snatched the ball and disappeared down an alleyway just metres away from us, as my aunt enthusiastically asked, “Did you see it, did you see it?” It was like catching a glimpse of some holy relic being paraded through the town. This was my very first Shrovetide.
That particular winter had seen severe snow storms across the country, and when we returned home later that day we could see dozens of footprints running across our back garden. “Looks like the ball’s been through,” my mum said. Wow, I thought; the ball’s been in MY back garden. This is the effect Shrovetide has on the residents of Ashbourne.
Since that day back in 1991, when I was just eight-years-old, my feelings towards the ancient game have teetered between pure delight and absolute apathy. Warm memories of days off school with my cousins, chasing the ball and eating a dozen sugary pancakes are sadly long gone. The emotions that have filled that void have ranged from pride and glory, to pure boredom and an excuse to go and do something else out of town. None of the other schools in the county were ever on holiday during those two days, so it was a good opportunity to frequent Derby Skatepark: we had it all to ourselves.
But before my fellow Ashburnians start sending me hate mail I should probably take a few steps back here to explain the very basics of this centuries-old game of street football.
Rules of the Game
The market town of Ashbourne, which dates all the way back to at least 1086, lies at the gateway to the Peak District and it was there I was born and raised. The river Henmore runs through the centre of the town and is perhaps the most important feature of the whole game. Without the river there would be no teams of Up’ards and Down’ards and no goal posts.
There’s been a game of Shrovetide Football in the town since the mid-17th century, though records suggest it may go back even further; potentially as far as the 12th century during the reign of Henry II. Some stories even claim that a prisoner’s decapitated head was used as the ball, though sadly, a fire in the 1890s destroyed most of the earlier records, so the true facts may never be known.
Today the rules are very clear: Those born north of the river – the Up’ards – play against those born on the south – the Down’ards. The game starts at 2pm every Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday on a large carpark known as Shaw Croft in the centre of the town. After singing Auld Lang Syne, the National Anthem and addressing the thousands of players and spectators, a local public figure, pre-selected by the Shrovetide Committee, ‘turns up’ the ball by throwing it in to the waiting crowd. This year, the Tuesday ball was turned up by Barrie Greenwood – perhaps one of the town’s most well-known former teachers. Wednesday’s ball was turned up by Bill Millward, who also celebrated his 100th birthday on the day.
The goals are three miles apart and are situated on the river bank at the site of two former mills – Sturston to the east, and Clifton to the west. To score, the ball must be tapped three times against a millstone built in to the stone pillars. Over the next few hours (eight if the ball isn’t ‘goaled’) the hug, as it’s known locally, pushes and pulls towards either of the two goal posts. Using a motorised vehicle to transport the ball is forbidden, as is murder. Certain areas are out of bounds; in particular churchyards, cemeteries and the Memorial Gardens. Or the park, as everybody else calls it.
Up’ards and Down’ards
Up until 1988, many of the town’s children were brought in to this world at the Ashbourne Maternity Centre – myself included. The location of the building meant that the children were born on the north side of the river, technically making them Up’ards. For everybody else, the city of Derby, 13 miles southeast, became their birthplace. This makes them Down’ards by birth, though there are many players and spectators on both sides who choose to follow their family’s traditional stance and therefore change sides.
Like all football fans and supporters, throwing verbal mud at people on the opposite team is part-and-parcel of the game. Shrovetide is no exception, and for two days friends and colleagues can become bitter enemies. All of my school friends were Down’ards, and I was forced to endure a torrent of abuse every year as we all walked in to town together. But I always felt I had the strongest argument when it came to yet another heated debate: historically, the town boundaries of Ashbourne ended on the north banks of the Henmore, with the township of Compton starting on the south. In other words, the Up’ards are the Pure Bloods of the game! (Cue death threats).
Being a 14-year-old Up’ard started to get a bit boring, as I was always following the ball on my own and feeling a bit lonely. Which is why I spent the next couple of Shrovetides heading to the skatepark in Derby where it was nice and quiet. My new skating buddies were equally not interested in the Big Game, and so I grew more and more detached from it.
Getting back in to ‘the hug’
But by the time I was 18 my skating days were over and I’d discovered beer and girls. I felt I was ready to be considered a true player instead of a teenage boy on the edge of the hug. My sister’s boyfriend at the time had a strong connection to the players, and one day he asked me if I wanted to meet some of them. The time and place was a bit of a secret, and I was to keep it to myself. But a few days later I was introducing myself to 20-or-so strangers in the middle of a field by an old oak tree. It was all very cloak-and-dagger.
That year I got stuck in to the best of my abilities. It helped knowing that Blue Peter were filming a short piece on the game, and there was no way I was going to be seen mincing around the edge of the hug on national TV. So, along with my cousin Stuart, we dug deep and got in to the thick of it. We remained at the centre of the hug for as long as possible and at times it felt l was going to break a leg or, worse, get crushed to death. But each time I went down (or anyone, for that matter) the players shouted, “MAN DOWN! BACK OFF!” and up we got again.
Once again, catching a glimpse of the ball, or better yet – actually grabbing hold of it – was enough to keep the pulse racing, and every time it went in to the river, there was no other option than to get in there with it. And although I would never class myself as a core player, I knew which way I wanted the ball to go and that’s the way I tried to push it.
Like most of the things I became passionate about as a young man, my ambition for the game disappeared as quickly as it has reappeared. I started learning to scuba dive and travelling to far flung places, meaning that I missed most games for the next five or so years.
No other freelance photojournalist knows Shrovetide better than me!
And then came photography and my first attempt to photograph the game back in 2009, when I was a photojournalism student at Norton College in Sheffield. I remember borrowing a bunch of kit and taking a French guy (who was as black as the ace of spades and stood out a mile in a town full of whiteys) and a Danish girl. As they tried to get to grips with the rules of play, I tried to keep a grip of the college equipment that was getting knocked around in the hug. I was shitting myself that I’d drop it all and have to pay a large lump sum to replace it. It goes without saying that I bottled it after an hour or two and just went to the pub instead.
When I started working for the Derby Telegraph I made it very clear that I didn’t want to go and photograph the game. “Let one of the others go and have a good time instead,” I told the Picture Editor. It was a good decision, as the other photographers always returned with a massive smile on their faces and some great pictures to match.
After I stopped working for the paper I continued travelling and ended up in Denmark. Setting up my photography business was the priority, and every February I always had wedding clients to meet with. It was a busy time of year, and I needed the money. But all the while I kept telling myself, “You really should go and photograph Shrovetide again.” I knew I had the connections; I knew that no other freelance photojournalist out there had a better grasp of the game, its history and what it means to the town’s residents, than me. So this year I waved goodbye to the wedding clients and decided to do it.
Working for The Guardian
I pitched the idea to The Guardian who were immediately up for it, so I booked my flights and started making a few phone calls. What I discovered was, despite my credentials as being a local lad from Ashbourne, not everybody wanted to give me accurate information. Whether it was intentional or not I don’t really know. But I got the impression that the foreign media weren’t exactly the most popular people in Ashbourne around Shrovetide.
Despite people’s concerns, my agenda was pretty straight forward: document the entire game from start to finish; the emotions, locations, people and the traditions. If I saw an injury, of course I was going to photograph it. If I saw a garden fence being destroyed, I’d photograph that, too. But it was never my intention, nor The Guardian’s, to focus on the latter. Leave that to the Daily Mail (which they did).
At this point I should give a massive shout out and thanks to Michael Hope-Smith, who is THE man when it comes to planning your Shrovetide Photo schedule. Michael helped me out from start to finish and vouched for me when I attended the Shrovetide Luncheon that takes place a couple of hours before the game. Even here I was met with scepticism when I explained I was indeed from Ashbourne but writing for The Guardian. I was told categorically that the last thing the game needed was more negative spin in the media. I totally agreed. Shrovetide is a game that my forefathers have played for almost a thousand years, so why would I want it to end or be misrepresented? But end it almost did in 2015 when lots of red tape caused problems for the committee. That year the game almost didn’t go ahead, and insurance companies couldn’t help but spot the endless stream of bleeding heads that popped up in the newspapers year after year. But there’s no way the journalist or photographer can take the blame for that. The decision lies with the editor, who already has an idea in his or her head how this story’s going to look the next morning. And let’s not forget all the Citizen Journalists out there who upload thousands of photos and hours of film on social networks like Facebook and YouTube. Are they being asked to tow the line as well? Can you even stop them?
It’s not a Free-for-All
Before the game officially began, Shrovetide Committee Chairman Brell Ewart gave a very honest and passionate plea to the thousands of waiting players and spectators: “Our Treasured and ancient game has been played in the town for about 1,000 years and the committee takes the view that it is played by Ashbourne and district people only.
“It is not an invitation for all comers to come and join in for what some may see as a “free for all”. The game is disciplined by the players and in Ashbourne we know how to play fairly. We do not need referees, and many other sports would do well to take a leaf from Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football and the spirit in which the game is played. Let’s keep it that way. Look after the game and it will continue. Don’t look after it and it will finish forever.”
These words kept repeating themselves inside my head for the rest of the day as I mulled them over. At first it sounded very Royston Vasey to me (“This is a local shop for local people”). But the more I thought about it the more I agreed with him. Over the years I’ve watched the game grow and grow and with that comes more interest from the outside world. The crowds have increased year on year, and I’ve even seen helicopters circling overhead – the Japanese media, no less. But the number of Shrovetide Marshalls has also grown, and people unnecessarily climbing walls and trees is now frowned upon. The marshalls are always quick to act, and this was something I never used to see in the past.
I spoke with dozens of people during those two days and the conclusion was strikingly similar: one film is to blame for bringing the masses to Ashbourne for 48 hours in February. Wild in the Streets was a Hollywood funded project that made a lot of Ashburnians very proud and excited. Finally the game was going to be played on an international stage – one of the biggest in the world. The trailer gets repeated time and time again on social media close to match day and the majority of us think it’s great. A source told me that the production company had to pay for the privilege to make the film, and the producers even cordoned off an area around the goal at Sturston. When a group of girls tried to get under the tape they were told, “We’ve got filming rights here; you can’t go in!”
Finding a solution
So is the game a victim of its own success? Probably, but it’s a cliche I get bored of hearing. Instead the town needs to work together to find a realistic solution to preserve the game for generations to come. Insurance and funding seems to be the largest issue. It would make a lot of sense to call a town meeting to discuss options and bounce ideas around. Everybody wants Shrovetide to continue, and I don’t think I’ve met anyone in Ashbourne who disagrees. Tourists and foreigners love it, too. They come from far and wide to witness the crazy spectacle and who can blame them?
No committee, player, spectator, film or newspaper is solely to blame for the problems Shrovetide Football faces each year. But surely those who benefit from and love the game the most can find a solution that keeps it alive for at least another generation.
Those people are the people of Ashbourne.
This blog post first appeared over at photographybymatthewjames.com