Is This Britain’s Most Violent Game?

Is This Britain’s Most Violent Game?
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The Atherstone Ball Game has one main rule:
don’t kill anybody. It’s a rule that goes without saying in most sports, but in this
case, you can see why it’s probably necessary to have it in there somewhere. The game kicked off in 1199. On Shrove Tuesday
of that year two teams – one from Leicestershire and one from Warwickshire – competed over
a period of several hours, and across several miles of countryside, to seize control of
a bag of gold. Even at a time when violence was part and
parcel of everyday life in England, the so-called ‘Match of Gold’ was notable for its brutality;
there were no referees and, with local pride at stake as well as the gold itself, gouging,
bludgeoning and bone-breaking were the order of the day. There might even have been a bit
of football in there too. The game’s origins can be traced even further
back than the 12th century though – Medieval football, or ‘Mob football’ as it is sometimes
known – has antecedents in similar games played in the ancient world. And going forwards
in time, the evolution of Medieval football can be tracked through various diverging branches,
including Gaelic football, Rugby and, of course, Association football. Warwickshire won the 1199 Match of Gold and,
for the following 820 years, an annual game has taken place every Shrove Tuesday in the
county’s market town of Atherstone to mark the event. While many other similar ‘Shrovetide’
games have come and gone across England over the centuries, the Atherstone Ball Game is
still going strong. Wars, social upheaval and the foot-and-mouth
crisis of 2001 have all failed to cause a break in its bloody 820-year streak. The Highways
Act of 1895 was introduced in part to put a stop to ball games being played in public
streets – the locals in Atherstone didn’t seem to pay it any heed however. It has become such a part of local identity
that one former Mayor has said “The ball game is Atherstone – without it there is
not a town.” For many locals, the game is the highlight
of the year – something they look forward to, train for and take immense pride in. It
is a connection with the past and – despite its adversarial nature – it brings the whole
town together, even if that does mean many of them battering the living daylights out
of each other. There have, over the years, been a few changes
to how the game is played, including the addition of the ‘no killing’ rule. Instead of a
bag of gold, a large leather ball is used nowadays. Because of the damage it sustains
during the match – not to mention the blood stains it usually endsup being spattered with
– a new ball is custom-made each year. Perhaps the biggest change to the game since
its early Medieval incarnation is that play is restricted to Atherstone’s Long Street,
in an attempt to prevent the ball being thrown or kicked into the nearby Coventry Canal. The modern game begins at 3pm, with the ball
being thrown from an upper window of Barclays Bank on Long Street. In recent times the person
who throws out the ball has been a specially invited guest of honour; in 2019 it was former
Aston Villa manager Brian Little. The game lasts for two hours. In its early
stages it is relatively sedate, with the ball being lofted up and down the street by players,
including children. There are also side games, like prizes for getting hold of one of the
ribbons attached to the ball at the beginning of play. But as the game heats up, it turns into a
no-holds-barred mass brawl. After about an hour, factions start to form, with different
groups duking it out for possession of the ball. Players – who number in their hundreds
– throw punches, kicks and elbows, and use the boarded-up shop windows as launch pads
for flying tackles and surprise attacks. The local police look on in bemusement as
the norms of the twenty-first century are momentarily put on hiatus in the name of something
more primal, brutal and chaotic. In its final minutes the game reaches fever
pitch as the team in possession desperately battles to cling on, while their riled-up
opponents do their best to prise the ball out of the scrum. And then, when the whistle blows at 5 o’clock,
it’s all over. Whoever is in possession of the ball wins. The crowds disperse, the
shops are reopened and the blood is washed from the pavement. The winner in 2019 was – for the fourth
time – local lad Jonathan Slesser. Over a pint of lager afterwards he summed up the
violent simplicity of both the Atherstone Ball Game and man’s very existence, telling
a reporter: “It’s the ball game, innit. It’s what we’re here for.”

100 thoughts on “Is This Britain’s Most Violent Game?

  1. That’s the real life version of the purge. Inal for this here in the US. Allows you to get all your anger out legally. Lol

  2. We actually have a quite similar game in Georgia (country, not a US state). In a village Shukhuti in the west of the country the villagers from two parts of the village come together and fight over control of the heavy leather ball filled with sand. It's called "Lelo" and the game is held every year on the Easter day. It's a very old tradition and even in the game of rugby we call a try "lelo", hence the English language nickname of our national team – The Lelos.

  3. Somehow despite all of the footage of the fighting and description of the scenes, the most damning thing about this sport was the winners quote at the end…

  4. I’m going to read between the lines here and suggest Jonathan Slesser is a BAD man. You probably don’t wanna throw hands with that dude.

  5. Ball is up in the air, everyone tries to get a touch on it… al of a sudden the footsteps are heard, the marauding run parting the crowd…

    MAGUIIIIIREEEEEEEEE

  6. Son: "A'ight. I'm gonna head out and play some ball with me mates."

    Mother: hysterically crying her eyes out in the corner, clutching son's baby blanket
    Father: "Ok son. I am really proud of you." single tear in eye

  7. Who pays for the damages? That electrical cabling people were swinging from needs repairing! BTW I'm all for this kind of thing. It's so refreshing in today's over policed ninnny-nanny health and safetiness. Yes people will get hurt and things will get broken. But that's OK it's just the ball game innit. Winning 4 times though is some feat. It seems so random as to who will end up with the ball at the time so to win it 4 times is really fucking impressive. Fair play to the police and council for not stopping this (though I bet they will someday). It's tradition innit.

  8. Nah Ashbourne Shrovetide is better it’s very brutal and lasts for two days and is played all over the town, fields and river with two goals as well

  9. It's interesting how football developed over the years. Football started off more bloody than the Atherstone Ball Game, even with knives, clubs, and other weapons involved. Mob football even took place in the early 19th century. Around that time, new versions of football came about with different rules which were generally more peaceful but often still involved some violence, but eventually violence was phased out of the game when one set of rules was agreed upon, since there was confusion when footballers from different areas of the UK played together. Rugby and Gaelic Football were also formed as offshoots of mob football, although there are actually places outside of Atherstone where mob football is still played. Might be fun to try it one day.

  10. Just a minor correction in that children do not take part in the adult game, instead they have their own mini ball game just before.

    Source: am from Atherstone.

  11. Rugby: a game for thugs played by gentlemen
    Football: a game for gentlemen played by thugs
    Ball Game: a game for thugs played by thugs.

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