Within the fabled and illustrious history of the Atherstone Ball Game, many names and faces have gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure the contest has survived across the centuries.
One of the most recent names that has been added to that hall of fame is of the poacher turned gamekeeper Rob Bernard who, after being on the winning team on six separate occasions, is now the chief steward of the contest.
As he and his gang of guardians dust off their fluorescent jackets, they are preparing to step once more in the breech to try and add some order to the ensuing chaos.
Rob spoke to the Herald about his transition to the other side, his secrets on what he believes is needed to win the game and how important it is to the people of Atherstone.
“Hands down without the stewards there would be no ball game,” said Rob.
“Because of the work the team does in making sure everybody gets a kick and making sure that everything runs how it should, it is the reason why the game is still here today.
“I have been stewarding now for five years and is has its own charms and challenges and the time just flies.
“Before you know it, it’s half four, the ball is going down and you are looking for the winner.”
Although the ball is released at 3pm, the work of the stewards starts much earlier as they meet in the early afternoon to discuss the day’s play, sort out their positions and prepare themselves for the contest.
Once the game begins, their eyes turn to the ball and crowds as they watch an altogether different game than the TV cameras and spectators.
With schools closing early, shops boarding up their windows and the world’s eyes looking down on the town, the electric atmosphere is palpable as kick-off begins.
Like hawks watching their prey, the stewards keep their eyes peeled for action ready to pounce on those over-eager participants keen to steal a march and take the ball early.
They also have to make sure the ball goes from one side of Long Street to the other and that as many people as possible get a kick or a touch of the ball.
“The main thing you have to watch out for is the ball going down too early.
“The ball should not go down until at least 4.30pm, but sometimes you get some people who try and take it.
“It is important to spot this quickly and get in there, grab the ball and release it.
“As well as the winning, ball game day is for everyone, it means so much to Atherstone and without it the town would be a very different place.
“We make sure the ball goes up and down the street at least eight times and even try to steer it towards the centre of town for the climax.
“People recognise the importance of the stewards and there is a respect for us.
“If we have to get involved, people tend to listen and let us through.
“Many of the stewards are ex winners or ex participants – I have been going to the game since I was 13 – and they all understand what it is about.
“They know how it works and how to keep things flowing. At the end of the day, it is a game and games are meant to be fun, exciting and include everyone and this is why the ball game is amazing.”
Rob has been a steward since 2012.
Since a teenager, though, Rob has been in love with the ball game and although he has never won the contest himself, he has seen his teammates be victorious.
He revealed the secret to what it takes to win.
“You have to keep fit and time it right. Timing is so important, the one who normally goes down with the ball, normally wins it to be honest, so you have to make sure you get that right.
"You also need a good bunch of friends around you, as it adds to the fun of the day.
"I reckon I was one or two more years away from being chosen to hold the ball and then our team at the Angel broke up.
"I was a bit gutted, but that is when I got more involved in the stewarding side of things and I have been part of it ever since.
So what’s better? Being poacher or gamekeeper? Good question! Very good question and it is not easy to answer!
“Nothing beats taking part in the game, but I love being on the stewarding side of things as it is equally important in keeping the event in the town.
“When the klaxon goes at the end and the winner is signalled, it is my job to get in there and grab the winner.
“It is quite an amazing experience making your way through the pile of bodies to uncover the champion, one year I will have to ‘Go Pro’ it, but I’d probably lose the camera!
“A piece of advice for being a steward would be to never wear a hat!
“The ball game is everything to the Atherstone people and the stewards are everything to the ball game.”
On Tuesday, February 13, the next page in the 819-year history of the Atherstone Ball Game will be written and Rob will be on hand, holding the pen.
Although he never got the chance to add his name to the winners’ list, without people like Rob and his team, the book on the game would have closed long ago.