Front Royal man witnesses historic English football game

Front Royal resident Michael Williams, from left, poses with the Shrovetide ball alongside former soccer player John Webb and owner of team Down'ard's home pub Steve Bull. Courtesy photo

FRONT ROYAL – The two original rules for the annual Shrovetide Football game, which dates back to the 1400s, were simple: no murder and no manslaughter. Updated rules have forbidden playing in churches or graveyards and transporting the ball in a vehicle. Otherwise, all else is fair play.

Front Royal resident Michael Williams recently traveled to Ashbourne, England, to witness the event. The game consists of two matches, one on Shrove Tuesday and the next on Ash Wednesday.

The match began at 2 p.m. on Shrove Tuesday in the town’s marketplace when the ball was tossed from a platform. Although legend says the game was played in the early 1200s using a decapitated head, a cork-filled ball is now standard. The town is divided by a river, with those born to the north representing team “Up’ard” and those born to its south are team “Down’ard.” Two goals are placed 1 1/2 miles north and south of the starting point, and the first to score wins that day’s match.

Williams is considered a Down’ard as his mother was born south of the river in Ipswich, but he nonetheless enjoyed time in both teams’ pubs of choice. He is not the only Front Royal resident to participate in the festivities as a “down’ard,” as his good friend, London-native Malcolm Barr, played at the age of 14 in 1947.

Williams said the ball, after a warning announcement that “you are playing at your own risk” was broadcast over a stereo, was tossed into a crowd of what Barr said consisted of the “stronger, younger men.”

Williams added, “They just all go for it, like a bunch of crazy people.”

The game can get so out of control that Barr said shop owners take the necessary precautions of boarding their windows to minimize destruction.

The crowd of thousands then move in from all sides in attempts to push the carrier toward their goal post. It is all repeated on Ash Wednesday, and this year’s game ended in a 1-1 tie.

Just as Williams was ready to jump into the “sea of humanity and inhumanity, all combined,” a friend held him back. Still, he was about 20 yards from the main pack and able to get the full experience.

Barr noted, “That’s the closest most people get.”

Eventually, the large crowd dwindles down as people decide, like Williams did, to enjoy another English tradition of hopping in a pub. Barr, however,  was not so lucky when he partook many years ago and was treated to another form of liquid refreshment upon being dunked into the freezing river.