Ancient Shrovetide football game is all set for kick-off next month

Action from a previous Alnwick Shrovetide football match.
Action from a previous Alnwick Shrovetide football match.

The mayhem and madness of a brutal and often very muddy historic sporting spectacle returns to Alnwick next month.

The town’s annual Shrovetide football match, played between the parishes of St Michael and St Paul, will be held on Tuesday, February 9.

The ancient fixture is played in the Pastures, in the shadow of Alnwick Castle.

The spectacle begins at 2pm, when the ball is dropped from the castle’s Barbican. Led by the Duke’s piper, the players and spectators then march down The Peth to the furlong-in-length match field.

The game is played in two periods of 30 minutes each. If the score is then even, a final period of 45 minutes is played. A period is ended once a goal, known as a hale, is scored.

Prizes of £10 will be awarded to the scorer of the first and second hales, and £20 to the scorer of the third or conquering hale. Up to 20 prizes of £2 will be awarded in recognition of good play.

After the game, the ball is kicked into the River Aln, prompting a mad scramble in the water to reach it first and carry it to the opposite bank.

The parish of St Michael currently holds the bragging rights after a 2-0 victory last year. Lee Patinson and Robbie Coxford were the goal-scoring heroes in the 2015 fixture.

Last year’s event was a poignant one, as the two sons of the late Eric Hately, who was a stalwart of the game, started the event, by performing the tradition of throwing the match ball from the Barbican.

The task is normally performed by the Duke himself, but he asked the Hately brothers – Peter and Robin – to take his place. There was also a minute’s silence in memory of Eric before the game kicked off.

The town fixture is an historic one. The first recorded match in Alnwick was in 1762. The Duke’s porter threw the ball over the castle wall to the masses to start play.

However, the fierce nature of the game resulted in great damage to property with windows being smashed, and so, in 1818, a law was passed throughout England banning football in the streets.

Despite this, the rebellious locals continued to play, ignoring the ruling up until 1827.

Once this was stopped, residents signed a petition asking the Duke for a safer place to play, which led to the Duke granting a pitch at the top of North Peth. Along with this, he erected the hales and awarded money for good play, with the scorer of the deciding hale taking the ball.

A year later, the first game took place in the Pastures. In 1847, the game evolved into a battle between the parishes of St Paul and St Michael.

And so it continued until the First World War. With the Army having a huge camp on the Pastures, play stopped.

The annual event also failed to resume after hostilities in 1945 and in 1949 it was feared it would never be played again, but in 1952 the Duke resumed the match.

In 1967, the pitch moved to its present home beside the river. Since then, the game was stopped only once – in 2001, following the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

In July last year, TV star Robson Green experienced the thrills and spills of Alnwick’s Shrovetide football match, as part of filming for the third series of the Tales from Northumberland programme.

The 51-year-old actor was given a taste of the fixture during a staged re-creation of the brutal contest in the Pastures.

A group of more than 15 local players of varying ages, including veteran competitor Steven Temple, joined the Hexham-born star for the kick-about.

He then joined fellow players in the River Aln for the customary scramble to reach the match ball.