Great videos of Shrovetide football in Ashbourne
The streets of Ashbourne were closed off and filled with screaming, steaming people yesterday for the first day of the town's annual Shrovetide football match. Chris Jones reports.
THE steel fence was bending slowly inwards, buckling under the sheer weight of people.
Above the long, choral cries of "heave!" from the players and the yelps of support from the excited, watching crowds, you could hear the creak of rivets giving way.
The scrum of players – two teams locked together, forcing against each other in an unbroken knot – was pushing against the fence, exerting an awesome pressure on the metal.
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Then suddenly the shouts from the spectators changed: "It's coming up, it's coming up! Watch for it, here it comes!"
And for a brief second, the crown of the scrum parted and a white football was spat skywards, spinning in the air for one lingering moment, before being punched aside by a bristling forest of arms, hands and fingers.
The crowd reacted instantly: "It's going, it's gone. Move!"
They charged off, following the direction of the ball and the bellowing, red-faced players.
This is Shrovetide football: it waits for no man and yields for no fence.
Yesterday was the first day of the biggest, strangest and most energetic sporting event in Derbyshire – the annual Royal Shrovetide football match.
Two teams, the Up'ards and Down'ards (formed of locals from the two halves of Ashbourne) go head to head to try and manoeuvre one match ball to goal areas at opposite ends of the town.
They do this pretty much any way they can, but such are the numbers of competitors that play quickly becomes a huge-scale scrum with the ball at the centre.
This scrum moves along the streets like some fantastic blob from a B-movie horror film, and over the two-day match you'd be lucky to see a ball goaled more than a couple of times.
At 9.10pm came the only goal of yesterday. It was credited to David Spencer for the Up'ards, who has been playing for 22 years.
And there could not have been no more popular scorer because, two years ago, he thought he had been on target, only for the committee to rule that his effort had come after the 10pm cut-off by a couple of minutes.
One of those players who had their first taste of the game yesterday was Roger Morgan of Belper. The 61-year-old rugby fan emerged from the throng around the ball red-faced and grinning.
He said: "At the centre some people are trying to keep the ball down and others are trying to hold on to it.
"I got a few touches – it's absolutely incredible."
He looked down at his shoes and trousers, which were plastered with mud, and said: "I've come here on a corporate do and I thought I would wear my best threads. That was a mistake.
"But honestly, I hope the sport keeps going. It takes over the town and there is such a good spirit here.
"If anyone gets hurt they immediately yell at people to get back and make room. It's awesome stuff."
He spoke at the corner of Park Road, about an hour after the match had started and the ball had only made it a few hundred feet
The town, decked in bunting and Union flags, had started to get busy by about 12pm.
Outside The Wheel Inn – the pub used as a base for the Down'ard team – Denstone local Richard Smith was getting ready for another year.
The 33-year-old has been playing Shrovetide since he was 10. He said: "You have to get involved to really enjoy it. Those guys at the centre have such good fitness – they are out training all the time.
"But it is the adrenalin you feel that brings you back. It just takes over the town. It's amazing."
Shops in the streets had put up wooden bars and blocks across doors and windows in preparation and at about 1.45pm the match ball was brought through the streets.
It was carried by John Tomkinson, boss of local building firm JRT Construction. It was his honour to carry the ball through the packed streets and then, in front of massed thousands in the Shawcroft car park, at 2pm, hurl it into the baying crowds. He said: "It's an absolute thrill. I've been a player for 40 years and to get to do this is a real honour."
Straight away, as soon as the ball touched the first outstretched hand, the game was on and for the next hour the scrum lurched around the car park, watched by spectators dozens of rows deep.
Cameras snapped overhead and photographers perched on fences and in trees to get good shots.
Soon the ball worked its way to the back of Ashbourne's fire station. You could tell where it was from the crowds of rising steam coming from the massed body heat around the ball in the sharp winter air.
It was here that the scrum came up against that steel fence. After a period of intense pressure, the ball pinged upwards to the cheer of the crowds and the action moved on down towards Park Road. Here, neighbours were able to get a first-class view of the action from their bedroom windows.
One player who had seen the game up close, and joined an exclusive, prestigious club by goaling the ball in the past, was Steve Bott.
The 58-year-old, of Windmill Lane, Ashbourne, was on the periphery yesterday but said he had felt the pressure of being in the centre of the scrum many times. He said: "I goaled it in 1984. There were a lot of other people involved and it was a bit of a committee decision by family and friends to give me the credit.
"But I never forget it – it's a real honour and makes me proud every year. Shrovetide makes Ashbourne what it is and brings a lot of people into the town. It feels amazing to be part of it in that way."
And as the game went on into the evening, with the crowds of all ages buoyed, shrieking and laughing, the furious match continued to its dramatic first-day scoring conclusion.