A MOTHER-OF-THREE got her first touch of the ball yesterday during a game each one of her sons has won in the past.

Vera Iceton was chosen to start the annual Sedgefield ball game and did so when she passed a leather ball through the bull-ring on the County Durham town green three times.

Scores of young men from Sedgefield and surrounding villages take part in the game said to date back nearly 1,000 years when it started as a four-hour long football match.

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The traditional Shrove Tuesday event has few rules, but many conventions, including a free drink for the first player to take the ball into any one of the local pubs.

Each year, the ball is stolen, supposedly by rival villagers, but the interlude provides a welcome opportunity for the players to enjoy a few beers.

The ball is returned several hours later and again passed through the ring three times to determine the winner.

Mrs Iceton, 80, said her sons, Neville, John and David won the 1976, 1982, and 1996 ball games respectively.

The Sedgefield resident of 62 years said she was thrilled to be given the chance to start the game.

Mrs Iceton said: “Years ago, it used to be between the tradesmen and the farmers, but now everybody has a go kicking the ball.

“I was chosen because my three sons have all won the ball game, I have lived here more than 60 years and I am part of the village, it’s just a dream to ally [start] the ball.”

The game is organised in some secrecy, rumoured to be in order to avoid liability for damages, but it is understood yesterday’s game passed without any major difficulties.

Most residents welcome the ball game and, despite the spirited nature in which it is played, injuries are usually limited to minor cuts and bruises.

One trader, who boarded up his windows yesterday, said: “When you have lived in the village all your life, you get used to it and don’t really complain. Nobody does.

“It’s more important to keep the tradition going and it looks a lot worse than it is, especially now it’s played in the village and not down the river, where it always used to end.”

The game was won by Martin Lower, a 35-year-old delivery driver, when he managed to pass the ball through the bull ring three times, for the second time, at about 4pm.