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This week’s main report looks at the earliest version of the Beautiful Game, Folk Football, which emerged during the Middle Ages in England. The transcript can be found below, while vocabulary support can be found for the words in bold at the foot of the post.

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Football has often been described as the people’s game it is, after all, the most popular sport in the world with millions playing each week. But what are the origins of the sport? In this week’s main report we take a look at Folk Football and note that it is still alive and well.


Though reports of ball games during the Roman occupation of England do exist, it was not until the Middle Ages that it started to become popular – indeed, there are records from the 13th Century that describe groups of men using their feet to play with a ball. Its popularity became so great that King Edward II banned the sport on ‘pain of imprisonment’ in 1314. He was not the only monarch to do so, however, as over the next 300 years more than 30 royal decrees were issued to try and stop the sport – though not Henry VIII who is credited with having bought the first ever pair of football boots! But what kind of sport was it?

Mob Football

It was definitely not for the faint-hearted! Generally, the game involved a large number of people, often pitting neighbouring towns and villages against each other, who punched, kicked and fought over a blown-up pig’s bladder in order to score a goal, indeed, one goal was normally enough to win a game. The match was played over a huge area – often the length of the village or in the surrounding fields and as there were few rules to follow anything could, and often did, happen. Many of these matches would take place on Shrove Tuesday which is the day before the Christian fasting period known as Lent.


Scholars are not so certain of the reasons behind the existence of folk football but some of the theories are quite interesting indeed. It was thought that the ball (‘baa’) in the folk football match played in Kirkwall, Scotland represented the head of a tyrant that had been killed by a local hero, while there are also suggestions that the ball acted as a symbol of the sun and was connected to a good harvest.

Present Day

Of course, since the Football Association drew up the first set of rules for football in 1863, the popularity of the folk or mob variation has declined quite dramatically. However, some villages in the UK still honour its tradition. Kirkwall in Scotland plays every New Year, while the Royal Shrovetide Football game takes place annually at Ashbourne in Derbyshire with the whole village closing down for the day as the ‘Up’Ards’ and the ‘Down’Ards’ fight for glory. It might not be seen as the Beautiful Game but folk football is an important part of its history.


Roman occupation of England: The Romans arrived in AD 43 and stayed until the end of the fourth century

royal decrees:Laws made by the Monarch


faint-hearted:the weak – implied that folk football was for strong, brave or violent people!

bladder: An internal organ that contains urine

a tyrant: An evil leader of people

harvest: The time of year to gather in crops

drew up: To formulate or to introduce a set of rules

honour its tradition: To continue with the tradition, to celebrate it

‘Up’Ards’ and the ‘Down’Ards’: The names of the two teams in Ashbourne (Up the Town and Down the Town)

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Listening Practice: Short Reports (2006-2016)Episode 26