The people of Warwickshire and Leicestershire have always been enemies in football – and this bitter feud in sport is what led to Atherstone getting its precious and world-renowned ball game.
Let’s go back 819 years.
The year is 1199. King John sits proudly on the English throne. The legend of Robin Hood prowls the lands of Locksley and Nottinghamshire, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, and many people live in extreme poverty.
Despite the drudgery, there was one thing which sparked the imaginations of the people of Warwickshire and Leicestershire and that was the “Match of Gold.”
Brave men from the two counties stepped onto the vast pitch between the two areas to take part in a monumental football game of gigantic proportions – with a bag of gold and the honour of the county at stake.
The ‘lads’ of Warwickshire and Leicestershire picked a stretch of land between the two counties to do battle. Goalposts were separated by miles of green earth. There were no referees and the nature of the match was brutal to say the very least.
After hours of battling, kicking, fighting, punching, gauging and playing an occasional piece of football, it was the Warwickshire lads who took the spoils and beat off their Leicestershire rivals.
To remember this great game and to honour the Warwickshire victory, a special Shrovetide football contest has been held in Atherstone every year ever since.
Ray Jarvis, Mayor of Atherstone, said: “The ball game is Atherstone, without it there is not a town.
“What makes it special is that it is unique, there used to be hundreds of these games across the country and all that is left is this and the game in Ashbourne.
“The contest has outlived so much history in this country, it has survived despite so many plans to stop it.
“Even the threat of a German invasion could not stop it, as it continued throughout the Second World War.
“It is so unique, so Atherstone and long may it continue into the future.”
On the morning of Shrove Tuesday, shops on Long Street and the rest of the town begin ceremoniously and protectively boarding up their windows, as the calm before the storm descends.
Come 3pm the ball is released into the melee of the crowd where everyone is encouraged to get a kick.
Things get serious after 4pm as the “groups” move in to take their prize.
Each big group that takes part pits its wits against each other to grasp the ball and keep hold of it until the final whistle blows at 5pm.
The rules have changed very little since those halcyon and violent days of ancient history, as the only ‘rule’ is you cannot kill anyone.
Health and safety has had its inputs though and a dedicated team of stewards and police officers are on hand to ensure the safety of those taking part.
Ancient contests would become so energetic, so aggressive and so brutal, the government passed the Highways Act 1895, which prohibited football being played in the streets and football all but died out by the end of the 19th century.
But that didn’t stop it!
The First World War came and went.
That didn’t stop it either!
The Second World War also came and also went and despite the threat of a German invasion, the game, like those lads of auld, battled on.
Lorna Dirveiks, member of Atherstone’s Heritage Group, said: “What has kept this game going so long is that it is so simple.
“In both wars shopkeepers had diffculties finding the wood to protect the windows and leather for the ball but it still went on.
“It is an event on its own, it is not tied to anything.
“We don’t have any Morris dancers or stalls, it is an event in its own right and I hope it carries on for many years to come.”
The contest was first broadcast on radio in 1934, televised in 1958 and has appeared on TV ever since.
Slight amendments were made in the 1970s as up to this point the pitch included the whole town, but the ball would often end up in the canal and so it was restricted to Long Street.
The contest suffered further threats in 1986 when that year’s game got out of hand and a public meeting was called to decide the future of the event.
A special Ball Game committee was formed, though, which has nurtured the game ever since.
The last time the event was really threatened was in 2001, when the nation suffered an outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
Only at the last minute it was decided that the game would go ahead and with Ashbourne’s being cancelled, it ended up being the best covered competition ever, as it was the only Shrovetide match in the entire country.
On Tuesday, February 13, it will be the 819th year the game has taken place. It has seen 38 Monarchs take the throne. It is almost as old as England itself!
These days it is the Leicestershire Lads’ Leicester City that sit in the English Premier League.
Had it not been, though, for those victorious Warwickshire lads on that muddy, desolate and barren battlefield in 1199, fighting for that precious bag of gold, Atherstone would not have this rich tradition that bores deep within its soul.