Case study

Journalism students cover Shrovetide Football

In Ashbourne, a picturesque Derbyshire town on the cusp of the Peak District, Shrove Tuesday is celebrated differently. Shops are barricaded, locals are divided, and a hand-sewn leather ball is prepared. For a group of University of Derby journalism students tasked with covering Shrovetide Football – this wouldn't be their typical assignment.

An ancient tradition

Royal Shrovetide Football is brutal. The ancient sport is a far cry from the eleven-a-side game we know today, and for residents of Ashbourne, it’s a proud tradition. In a match that spills into Ash Wednesday, the Up’Ards - those born north of the Henmore Brook - face their south of the river counterparts, the Down’Ards, in a contest to score in goals positioned three miles apart.

The sheer toughness of the event wasn’t lost on BA (Hons) Specialist Sports Journalism student Phoebe Sheldon. Passionate about sports and writing, Phoebe wanted a course that would allow her combine these interests while providing the knowledge and expertise needed to succeed in sports journalism. Returning to Shrovetide for a second time, Phoebe was excited to gain valuable degree-relevant experience.

“I attended in my first year,” said Phoebe. “Although initially nerve-wracking, tracking the ball and the game as a whole was incredibly exciting- it’s so unpredictable! That first year helped my preparation for our coverage this year, because I knew the terrain and the tides the game could turn. I felt like I’d trekked over every possible field in Ashbourne last year and experienced the hug up close and from afar!” Despite its endearing name, ‘the hug’ is anything but friendly, resembling a giant rugby scrum.

Third-year student Helen Purcell had intended to study History and Politics, but after a change in circumstances found herself searching for a different path. In Journalism and History BA (Hons), Helen found a versatile course that would satisfy her passion for politics, while giving her so much more. Having been unable to attend Shrovetide previously, Helen was determined to experience the raucous atmosphere: “Every year Alex Canner [Programme Leader for BA (Hons) Journalism at the University of Derby] takes students up, but I've always missed it due to health problems, so for my final year I knew I couldn't miss it! And I'm so glad I didn't!”

A photo of BA (Hons) Journalism programme leader Alex Canner

Every year we love seeing the students produce stories from Shrovetide that are creatively innovative. It really helps them learn to work in large teams when covering this fluid, unique game which has real history and identity. The best part - lots of it gets published by our friends in the media at the BBC, Reach and beyond. Plus - it's just brilliantly exciting!

Alex Canner
Programme leader for BA (Hons) Journalism
Shrovetide player holds the ball close to boarded up shops
Photo by Helen Purcell

Challenges and triumphs

There were plenty of challenges to navigate across the two days, not least being Ashbourne’s tough terrain, which includes open fields and rivers. BA (Hons) Journalism student David Chan embraced the opportunity as a chance to gain valuable experience: “We faced challenges of not being the most outdoorsy type of people, but we just followed directions on Google Maps. We were so exhausted that finding a small shop felt like we'd found the promised land!”

Helen’s highlights included getting caught in the hug, capturing the ball in play and meeting “Amazing and unique people”, while for Phoebe, photographing the moment the match was won was special: “I was fortunate to get a picture of one of the goal scorers this year, Steve Maznenko, and watch the Up’Ards carry him on their shoulders into the Green Man pub to celebrate their win.” The game ended two nil, with the Down’Ards tasting defeat after a fierce contest.

Leading the coverage

Journalism courses at the University of Derby combine theory with real-world learning, and Shrovetide Football provides a valuable opportunity for students to broaden their experiences and expand their skillsets. David finetuned his photography skills, working to tell a story through images, while for Phoebe, the experience unearthed resilience: “In the two years I’ve attended, it’s proved to me I have grit and determination. When it comes to a future career in journalism, I know I can weather the storms that may come my way.”

Students covering the event showcased their work online on StoryHub, a platform designed to help Derby Journalism students to gain valuable experience by providing an opportunity for them to publish their work throughout their studies.

For Helen, the opportunity resulted in an exciting milestone: “I feel more confident, validated, and appreciated. Some of the people of Ashbourne have asked me to keep coming and taking pictures, there’s no better confirmation of a job well done!” Helen’s coverage was picked up by local news publication Derbyshire Live, a proud moment:

Journalism student Helen Purcell

A few pictures went up Wednesday in the live updates, and then on Thursday Derbyshire Live ran a 32-image photo story, this was my first by-line and a massive moment for me!

Helen Purcell
Journalism and History BA (Hons) student

Thinking about studying journalism? “Go for it!”

When asking our students what they would say to someone thinking about studying Journalism at Derby, the response was unanimous. "Absolutely go for it!" remarked phoebe:

Specialist Sports Journalism student, Phoebe Sheldon

Go for it! I’m so glad I did, because I’ve found friends in a diverse group of course mates and experience in a wide array of lecturers and guest speakers who know their field. Their support has meant I’ve participated in a press conference for Venus Williams and helped interview Katarina Johnson Thompson.

Phoebe Sheldon
BA (Hons) Specialist Sports Journalism student

Helen's academic journey has been one of resilience and defiance. Managing complex health challenges alongside her studies, it was crucial that Helen found somewhere that would accommodate reasonable adjustments and provide necessary support. Having experienced a wide array of opportunities during her time at university, any fears Helen might have had about being overlooked due to her health were soon forgotten:

“I've often worried about being passed over because of my health, but I've gotten to my third year with so many options, and nobody has ever questioned my capacity or ability because I'm disabled, I've only ever been supported, challenged and encouraged… think about what drives you and what you’re passionate about, consume as much journalism as you can and just jump in, it’s so much fun!"

There's a clear link between wellbeing and academic success, and to help students to get the most out of their time here, the University of Derby's Student Hub can direct students and applicants towards confidential wellbeing support throughout their university journey.

Future-focused learning

Journalism is fast-paced and ever-changing, and as a future-focused university, Derby gives students a competitive edge by teaching the skills, knowledge and expertise that will help them to flourish once they graduate. David has found this aspect of his course particularly beneficial:

Our course is about preparing us for the future as opposed to focusing only on more traditional Journalism.

David Chan
BA (Hons) Journalism Student

Back to normality

Ashbourne has returned to it’s peaceful normality, and there’s little trace of the excitement that unfolded over two lively days, but for the students involved, the experiences gained will have a lasting impact as they chase their dream careers.

You can keep up to date with our students' progress by following @JournoDerbyUni on X. Take a look and be inspired by the exciting opportunities that studying Journalism at Derby can bring. 

England Manager Gareth Southgate lifts a trophy in a University of Derby lecture theatre

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