Blog: How Shrovetide 2020 changed my view of the game and myself

Royal Ashbourne Shrovetide 2020: How this two-day medieval football match changed my perceptions of the game and myself

Journalists in a car park
Journalists gather at Shaw Croft car park before the crowd arrives - Photo: David Layzell

Once a year, tales of broken limbs and bloodied faces filtered down into the quiet town where I grew up.

They spoke of nearby Ashbourne and its annual Royal Shrovetide football match.

It’s a place I have visited many times but never on Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday, when the residents unleash their peculiar brand of anarchy masquerading as sport.

This celebration of brawn and brutality, where battle-hardened locals fight for domination over three miles of muddy fields and river using a ball as an excuse, had always sounded like my personal hell.

My heart sank when it was announced that, as journalism students, we would be covering an event I’d spent a lifetime avoiding.

However, I chose to study journalism to push my boundaries and the experience was a revelation.

The communal atmosphere and camaraderie were as far removed from my naïve childhood imaginings as it was possible to be.

Good-natured competition and a deep reverence for the history of the game replaced the scenes of carnage I had expected.

The chaos was limited to the small group of players known as ‘the hug’, who fought over possession of the ball while hundreds of onlookers screamed support for their respective teams.

Having completed my shift at 4pm, I left the event undamaged and with a new-found respect for this quirk of Englishness.

As a result, I wasn’t there to report on the 8.30pm goal by Tom Leighton which left the Up’ards 1-0 against the Down’ards at the end of the first day of play.

My opportunity would come on the morrow.

I returned the following evening at 8pm after receiving information that a 2-0 victory was possible and there were no other students there to cover it.

A visit to the Sturston Mill goal led to disappointment, the Up’ards were nowhere in sight and the ball had gone missing.

On the wings of a rumour I flew to the Clifton goal in my car and arrived just in time to capture the dramatic finale as the Down’ards equalised with 10 minutes to go.

The videos, photos and audio interviews I gathered were immediately published as they told the heroic story of one man finding the ball and hiding it until he could deliver it to be goaled by Craig Frith.

Though it concluded as a draw, it felt like victory.  For both me and the Down’ards.

In a few short moments I had transformed from student to journalist, and forever fallen in love with the game that gave me the opportunity to do so.