“The liberal use of sheet leg guards is not merely a precaution but an absolute necessicity, for no sooner does the ball touch the ground than the most indiscriminate kicking begins and on times throughout the game.”
On the head…literally
Like the many of surviving and demised ball games a long history is suggested according to this account in 1889 that it:
“has been played on the Green at least since the twelfth century. It can last for hours and gets rowdy; the object is to ‘allay’ the ball and get it in part of the village defended by the other side.”
The account as gives an interesting reason:
“It is said to have started as a quarrel between Chester-Le-Street apprentices and a retainer at Lumley Castle, the first football being the latter’s head.”
Such an origin, probably confused may hint at earlier pagan origins. As indeed does the most common legend which states that it started in 1246-56 when the church was being built, the game ensuing between the craftsmen were occupied with its building and the local farm workers when the rector threw the ball at noon. Despite all this claimed heritage the earliest mention is in 1802 in the Sporting magazine. Although, a later account by William Parson and William White states that it is an ancient custom and relates the role of the parish clerk who provides the ball providing some evidence for the legend perhaps or origin.
Not a game of two halves
The first explanation may have some grain of truth for over the years the game has been known to have changed and fought in teams. Now it appears to have no teams but two goals were indentified until the 1920 which were for the two opposing teams, town and county. The town goal being a stream running along the boundary to the south and the county a pond a few hundred yards north of the town centre. The location of the goals, the county one being nearest to the town may hint at its age, recalling a pre 1636 date when farm workers would have lived within the town walls for protection.
Post 1920s the rules changed, the county goal was filled in when the blacksmiths nearby became a petrol station. This meant only one goal survived and the game was no longer divided into opposing factions. Now individuals or groups compete making it even more exciting as you do not know who is going to win!
Eye of the ball
It was a bright but cold day, I arrived at noon, no one was there, The church bell rang, a local noticing I was looking a little perplexed, informed me that this was the pancake bell, rang to encourage the locals to prepare them, and no doubt to fill the stomachs of the participants to warm them up and sustain them. An hour later a man appeared carrying a small ball, it was much smaller than the other ‘footballs’ from similar games and soon a scrum surrounded him as he stood over the bull ring in the Green.
As the participants scrummed around, the ball is passed unnoticed in the sea of men through the ball ring. There was a little to-ing and fro-ing awaiting to grasp the ball once it has been passed through the bull ring. One! The crowd jocked into position. Two! The scrum got closer. Three! Up it went and it soon disappeared….then it appeared as one member bravely kicked it across the grass and ran after it. The ball skirted down the main road, chased by three men, under a car and caught the other side. Then back into the centre. Then a tremendous kick into the air and I caught a glimpse as it glided above me…a happy participant then took procession and kicked controllably down the road. He didn’t have it free for long as soon the mass ranks of participants were after him and soon a scrum developed. I wryly observed as nearby life appeared to be continuing as normal as a bus turned up destined to the outside world and an elderly lady boarded just as the scrum surged in the bus’s direction. A small car behind not being so lucky as the passengers got a close view of the participant’s flesh pressed against the window as they waited at the crossing. I was surprised no one thought of passing the ball inside….to pick up later. The intense scrumming and breaking free continues until bizarrely it appeared to stop…where did they go? I checked my watch. It was 2pm and they’d obviously stopped to have a drink in the pub or have some sandwiches. Just under an hour later and the game apparently appeared as if it hadn’t gone and it became more fevered. As the light begin to fade there was a more determined effort to get the ball to the goal…
After a while I retreated to a delightful team room as the cold had got to me and watched it through a half boarded up window… A mass scrum of dirty, wet and mud strewn bodies came into view, the ball somewhere with in them. Then at 4 the ball is to ‘allay’ to the goal a beck in the south of the village and the back to the centre and through the bull ring three times. Whosoever retrieves the ball from the goal of that team brings it back to the market bull ring and after passing it three times through the ring is declared the champion and allowed to keep the ball
Of all these street games, this is the best one for the spectator, the ball is often kicked and the village green large enough so as not to feel claustrophobic, although it is difficult due to the ball’s size to work out exactly was in going on, the roars and shouts more than make you aware of its progress as long as it doesn’t disappear!
Find out when its on
Calendar Customs when its on…http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/sedgefield-football/