FOR centuries, Sedgefield in County Durham has hosted one of the region’s most unusual sporting traditions. Lizzie Anderson reports on this year's Shrove Tuesday Ball Game.

PICTURE the scene. The historic town of Sedgefield in County Durham is in uproar.

A crowd of burly men are charging across the green, while residents of all ages cheer them on enthusiastically.

Passersby jump aside as the crowd makes its way down Front Street, where many of the shop windows have been boarded up.

Outsiders would be terrified, but for Sedgefield residents it is a spectacle they have witnessed all of their lives.

For this is not a riot, it is the Shrove Tuesday Ball Game, an annual sporting tradition that dates back almost 1,000 years.

This year, grandmother-of-three Dot Anderson was given the honour of starting the game.

At precisley 1pm she passed the ball through a bull ring on the green three times.

It is one of many conventions that govern the game, which on first glance looks very much like a free-for-all, with participants kicking and throwing the ball and tackling other players to the ground.

Mrs Anderson, 71, said: “I am delighted to have been asked, as I have been running about like this for 60 years. It was a fantastic feeling.”

Other conventions include a free drink for the first player to take the ball into any of the pubs and a battle for possession in the local beck in which the ball must be dunked numerous times.

The game can be fierce and this year was no exception, with many of the participants covered in mud and nursing injuries by the time it was over.

However, the atmosphere was friendly and the players were happy to step aside to allow a child or older person to kick the ball.

PC Keith Todd, who has policed the event for 16 years, said: “When I first started working in Sedgefield it was a real eye opener, but I am used to it now.

“It all went well this year. We had one car of outsiders show up and try to cause trouble, but we sent them on their way before any disruption was caused.”

The game, which is organised by a secret committee, ends by what can only be described as a rugby scrum, players battling for possession of the ball in order to pass it back through the bull ring.

After a climactic 15 minutes of pushing and shoving, 21-year-old Joe-Louis Fanelli emerged victorious at around 4.30pm.

Mr Fanelli, who boxes for the Army, said: “It feels great to have won as I worked really hard for it.”