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Atherstone, Warwickshire, UK. 5th March 2019. Pictured: The ball is thrown out of a first floor window of Barclays Bank into the waiting crowd.
The Atherstone Ball Game, 2019. Photo credit: Lee Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo

Customs Uncovered: Atherstone Ball Game

One the UK's oldest surviving traditions, the Atherstone Ball Game in Warwickshire kicks off at 2pm today. Be there at your peril.

Much like Gloucestershire’s Brockworth, Atherstone in Warwickshire is a fairly nondescript kind of place… for most of the year. For a single day, however, both towns descend into their own forms of madness. In Brockworth, the locals head to the top of Cooper’s Hill and chase a massive cheese down a hill, breaking limbs and heads in the process. In Atherstone, their counterparts head into the high street (and wherever they happen to spill out) and do much the same. Welcome to the Atherstone Ball Game.

What is the Atherstone Ball Game?

Once described as “the most brutal sport in the world”, the Atherstone Ball Game is a traditional event that takes place in Atherstone, Warwickshire, England. It is a centuries-old annual competition associated with Shrovetide Football, with records indicating its occurrence since the early 12th century, making it one of the oldest traditions of its kind in England. The game is played on Shrove Tuesday each year and involves a large, leather ball that is released to the crowd in the town’s main street. On February 13th, 2024, the town recognises what they believe to be the 824th event.

What are the rules?

The objective for participants is not to score goals in any traditional sense but to gain possession of the ball and keep it until the end of the game. Kicking off at 2pm and ending at 5pm, the match is characterized by its lack of formal rules and the rough-and-tumble nature of play (putting it mildly), where the ball can be carried, thrown, or kicked. The game is played in public streets, with shops often boarded up to prevent damage, and can attract hundreds of participants and spectators. The winner is the last person to holding the ball when the clock chimes 5pm.

Who can join in?

Since there aren’t any rules, and policing such an event is so difficult (see below), the answer must surely be: anybody, if they’re mad enough to. As if this needed underlining any further, shops throughout the town take the precaution of boarding up their windows. Meanwhile, in a gesture that underscores the event’s deep-rooted community spirit, local children are granted early dismissal from school on the day of the game. They are also treated to sweets and pennies before the commencement of the game, fostering a festive atmosphere and ensuring the entire community, including its youngest members, feels involved in this historic event. Let’s just say it’s a day of dichotomies.

Who gets to throw the ball first?

The honour of throwing the first ball has, in recent years, been given to a celebrity chosen by the Atherstone Ball Game Committee. Gordon Banks, Jimmy Tarbuck and Annette Badland have all seen action. In 2024, the ball was thrown by Midlands comedian, Josh Pugh.

Is there a prize?

Yes, the prize for the Atherstone Ball Game winner is the Atherstone Ball itself, a four-pound beast that is filled with water to give it extra heft. Other prizes include a tenner each for anyone who ends up with one of the ribbons tied to the ball, and a smaller prize for anyone who finds the gold coin thrown into the crowd at the beginning of the game.

Has anyone won more than once?

Kieran Marshall, Lewis Cooper, and Scott Wright emerged as the triumphant team winners of the Atherstone Ball Game 2023. In the preceding year, Josh Sheldon claimed victory in 2022, marking him as the decade’s first winner, following the cancellation of the 2020 event due to a marshal’s illness and the 2021 game’s cancellation amid Covid-19 restrictions. Meanwhile, Jonathan Slesser boasts a record of winning the challenging event four times in previous competitions.

Who won in 2024?

At the close of the 824th Atherstone Ball Game, Alex Young held on to the ball and was subsequently hailed as the winner.

Have there been any deaths?

I can see why you’re asking that. You’ve seen the footage, haven’t you? Amazingly, the answer is no. But that doesn’t mean it’s not utterly savage. In recent years, the Atherstone Ball Game has seen its share of incidents: in 2019, a player’s ear was reportedly torn off amidst the chaos of participants exchanging blows in an effort to secure the ball. The following year, in 2020, the event witnessed a marshal needing medical attention and being airlifted to a hospital after falling ill during the game. More alarmingly, the 2023 edition was marred by extreme violence as individuals were recorded engaging in egregious acts of eye-gouging and stomping on one another.

The Atherstone Ball Game, 2024

On the eve of the 824th Atherstone Ball Game, Warwickshire Police have issued a stern warning, emphasizing that the event is ‘not an excuse for violence,’ ahead of the 2024 game. This cautionary message follows the viral outbreak of violent scenes from last year’s game, which the force has vowed not to tolerate again. The police have made it clear that they expect the game’s organisers to halt the event should any violence erupt and have stated their readiness to intervene if necessary. Additionally, to bolster security and oversight, the force plans to deploy drones and CCTV cameras during the event, which will see Long Street closed off to accommodate the historic medieval football game.

Just remember, it’s a game – our game – it’s our tradition. Let’s not lose it.

The Atherstone Ball Game Committee, 2024

The Atherstone Ball Game committee have put out the following statement:

“Following last year’s ball game and the worldwide coverage, 823 years of tradition could be lost if we do not follow what we are being instructed to put into place.

“The committee has been in endless meetings to hopefully be able to bring the 824th Atherstone Ball game. If you would like your children and grandchildren to enjoy one of the oldest traditions for years to come, we have got to move the game with the health and safety of everyone in mind with modern-day times.

“The police have informed us that there will be consequences and prosecutions for anyone seen to be causing anti-social behaviour or breaking the law in a public place. This is on or off the ball and any damage intentionally caused to any property.

“There will be a no-violence-tolerated attitude towards competitors, marshals, our first aid team or officers that are their for everyone’s safety. The police will not stand back this year and allow it to continue.

“With the help of media, social media and surveillance throughout the town…. just remember, it’s a game, our game, it’s our tradition. Let’s not lose it.”

How can I get involved?

We’d probably recommend that you don’t. And if you must, avoid breaking anybody else’s body or property. As the local police have already posted on their Facebook page, “Don’t be the reason Atherstone loses the Ball Game.”