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Collections has been calling the wild, unruly game that breaks out at various times between Christmas and Easter ‘Street Football’ for the last 50 years. Now we find on Google that ‘street football’ is something else altogether and that there was even a Street Football World Championship in Berlin in 2006. Wikipedia has an astonishingly detailed article describing 30 versions of the sport from all around the world – without mentioning a single one of the street football games Brits have been living with for centuries. However, it must be admitted that that not all our games do take place in the streets but in fields, and on the beach at St Ives in Cornwall. Research has turned up several alternative names; Shrovetide Football, Folk Football, Festival Football, Medieval Football, Mass Football, Mob Football. All agree it is football, in spite of the fact that in most of the games the ball, or substitute for a ball, is far too hard, or if the ball is kickable it is usually in such an almighty scrum that few people ever get to see it let alone kick it. Shrovetide Football is good for the games on Shrove Tuesday, but half the games occur on other days. Folk Football is definitely appropriate, but too general. Festival Football doesn’t do it for us, there is nothing festive about these warlike hostilities. Medieval Football is not bad and true in most cases. Mass Football is fine but vague. Mob Football, on the other hand, is exactly what is.

Origins of Mob Football are unclear. Stories of rough soldiery kicking around the heads of vanquished foes may be true, but it is more likely to have grown out of man’s basic need to compete and let off steam. Written records go back as far as the 13th century. It was widespread in medieval times but efforts to stamp it out have been going on almost as long. Edward II issued a decree forbidding it in 1314 and inevitably the Puritan Philip Stubbes had a go in 1595. The games gradually died out as authorities triumphed, mostly with the reasonable argument that the football caused too much damage to property, never mind the participants. About fifteen survive to this day, many in heavily boarded up streets, with cars parked well out of the way and the police observing from a tactful distance. There are no written rules anywhere but the un-written ones vary from place to place. The ‘goals’ can be a mile or more apart; in a few there are no goals at all but the winner is the man in possession of the ball after a certain time. Teams are unlimited in numbers but they do usually represent specific groups, two parishes at Alnwick, Hallaton and Medbourne villages, Town and Country, ‘Uppies and Downies’ (or similar), Bakers and Sweeps, Married and Unmarried, four pubs in Haxey. Everywhere these games are contested with the utmost competitiveness and vigour. In earlier, rougher, times bloodshed was the order of the day but nowadays injuries tend to be accidental. Even so people do get injured. Drowning cannot be ruled out...