Atherstone Ball Game
The Atherstone Ball Game is a "Medieval football" game played annually on Shrove Tuesday in the English town of Atherstone, Warwickshire. The game honors a match played between Leicestershire and Warwickshire in 1199, when teams used a bag of gold as a ball, and which was won by Warwickshire. At one time similar events were held in many towns throughout England, but Atherstone's is now one of at least three such games that are still played each year at Shrovetide, the others being the Royal Shrovetide Football match held in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, and The Alnwick Shrovetide Football Match in Alnwick, Northumberland.
The game is an annual event played in Atherstone each Shrove Tuesday. Shops in the town are boarded up in preparation for its staging, while local children are allowed to leave school early on that day. The two-hour game is played in the town's main street, Long Street, and sees groups of players compete for possession of a giant ball that is specially made for the occasion. The match is usually started at 3.00pm on Shrove Tuesday by a celebrity guest, usually someone associated with the area, who is invited to throw the ball from the upstairs balcony of the Atherstone Conservative Club (known locally as the Connie).[fn 1] The game itself has few rules, two being that play is restricted to Long Street and participants are not allowed to kill anyone. The winner is declared at 5.00pm, the title going to the person who has possession of the ball when the whistle sounds. Ahead of the game itself, sweets and pennies are thrown to local children. The ball is decorated with ribbons before the game, and prizes are also awarded to anyone who gets hold of one, as well as to the person who gets the golden penny, thrown into the crowd shortly before the game commences.
Gameplay can become quite intense as players compete to keep hold of the ball, with clothes torn off and occasional violence. The New Zealand Herald has described it as "combining all the best aspects of the UFC, volleyball and Gloucester's famous cheese wheel chase". The event is policed by officers from Warwickshire Police, while members of West Midlands Ambulance Service are on standby to treat any injuries.
Famous people who have started the game include those from the worlds of sport, acting and television. Among those to throw the ball out to the crowd are rugby player Wally Holmes in 1953, actor Sid James in 1963, comedian Jimmy Tarbuck in 1968, comedian Larry Grayson in 1976, former Aston Villa manager Brian Little in 1985 and 2019, footballer Gordon Banks in 1995, television newsreader Llewella Bailey in 2000, and actress Annette Badland in 2017. Singer George Formby was also pictured at the game in 1937.
The original medieval football game honoured by the annual event was held in Atherstone in 1199, during which teams from Warwickshire and Leicestershire competed, using a bag of gold as a football. This original "Match of Gold", as it became known, was won by Warwickshire. The Ball Game was once one of many such games held in towns throughout England, but is presently one of three that continue to be held over Shrovetide, the other two being the Royal Shrovetide Football match in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, and The Alnwick Shrovetide Football Match in Alnwick, Northumberland.
Medieval football matches were more common before the 20th century, but their violent nature led the government of the time to pass the Highway Act 1835 to prevent it being played in the streets, although games continued to take place in Atherstone. In 1901, an attempt by police and local authorities to also have the Atherstone game banned was rejected by parish councillors. Before the 1970s the game was played throughout the town, but was restricted to Long Street because the ball frequently ended up in the Coventry Canal. In 1986, a public meeting was held to determine the game's future after that year's event got out of hand. The outcome of this meeting was the formation of a Ball Game committee, which now has responsibility for organising the event. After violence broke out at the 2019 game, committee chairman Rob Bernard suggested those responsible threaten the game's future: "In the past, when things have got out of hand, we've put it out there that the future of the Ball Game is under threat and it calms down a bit the following year...But then it comes back again. It is the nature of it." Following that year's game, a clip of participants fighting received 3.4 million views on Facebook, and a report in the Daily Mirror newspaper claimed that a man's ear had been ripped off during the fracas. However, no such casualties were reported either by police or ambulance officials.
For several years the ball was made by the sportswear manufacturer Webb Ellis. Prior to this Alan Johnson the local Saddler from Market Street was the maker from the 1950s. Following the 2017 game Webb Ellis cancelled their contract to make the ball. As a consequence, Atherstone upholsterer, Pete Smith, was commissioned to produce the ball for the 2018 game. This marked the first occasion the ball had been made in the town since 1982. Smith based his design on an original cardboard template made by local craftsman Brian Brown.
- The Atherstone branch of Barclays Bank was used until its closure in 2019; the Conservative Club was then selected as a replacement venue to start the game, beginning in 2020.
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