A MAN who played a key role in saving Workington’s traditional mass football game as a teenager is celebrating 40 years as its official ball-maker.

Mark Rawlinson was only 14 when he made his first ball for the Good Friday match of the Uppies and Downies series in 1979. Had he not stepped up to the task, the game could have been over.

Mark, 55, had always had a fascination for the game, which sees two sides of the town fight to bring the ball, specially made for each of the three games of the Easter series, to a hailing point – Workington harbour for the downies and Workington Hall for the uppies.

“I played Uppies and Downies when I was younger. I lived at Northside, so the game was happening on my doorstep, our mums used to take us down wearing head-scarves – it was the years of hair-rollers. It was just the mythical game, no T-shirts, no colours, people just appear from anywhere and start playing,” said Mark.

Mark met Jimmy Ellwood, who was the ball-maker for 75 years, when he wanted a squirrel stuffed (Mr Ellwood was the town’s saddle-maker and taxidermist and ran a shop in the town’s Wilson Street).

“I was mesmerised by those balls. And that’s when the torment set in,” recalled Mark. He would play truant and go to Mr Ellwood’s shop hoping to learn the tricks of the trade. But Mr Ellwood was not happy about Mark missing school and initially made it difficult for the teenager. Mark said: “It was quite a challenge but my determination won.”

In 1979 Mr Ellwood was taken ill and if Mark hadn’t stepped up to the plate there would not have been a ball in that year’s series. “I always think Jimmy was the master and I was the understudy. I was wearing a Parka at that first match and I looked like one of those guys out of South Park. I was worried the ball wouldn’t last the game, but it did and I knew then I’d cracked it,” said Mark.

It takes him around 30 hours to make a ball and he still uses Mr Ellwood’s stamps, which are over 100 years old.

It was Joe Sandwith, of Seaton, who hailed that first special ball for the uppies in 1979. Joe later switched to the downies’ side when the team started struggling with the number of players following the demolition of the Marsh and Quay estate.

Joe was 29 when he hailed the first ball made by Mark. “It’s quite special for me to have that ball. If it hadn’t been for Mark, the game would have been finished, no one else had the skill or knowledge to make it – and 40 years later the ball is still together.” Joe said in 1977 players had to use a replica ball when Mr Ellwood had also fallen ill and he was the one to hail that ball then too.

Of many mass football games that were in existence up and down the country, very few remain. However, The Workington game is the only one not to have given in to formal committees and rules. Mark said: “I think we’ve been lucky because we’re off the M6 and that’s how this little game in West Cumbria survived.”

This year a special ball to mark 100 years since the end of World War One has been made with poppies and a poem displayed on it. It is to be hailed on the Tuesday game. The war ended in December 1918 and players will celebrate the first game being played at Easter 1919 after the end of the war.

But this isn’t the first ball to mark a special event that the ball-maker has put his name to. He made balls to commemorate the Queen’s golden and diamond jubilees and the millennium and he also made a special ball for the 1990 football World Cup. This is one of Mark’s proudest achievements, with the ball travelling all around Europe and ending up on show at Manchester’s football museum.

Mark said: “I don’t like to take the shine off the guys that win the ball or the guys who organise the charity event. In my early days I used to think: ‘Look at all those people – I made 1,000 people dance. But in my later days I’m all for the people, it’s their game. This is a real historical tradition and it’s thanks to them if it still goes on.”

And although Mark has no intention to retire yet, he does not know what the future holds for Uppies and Downies ball-making. He said: “The future is a mystery. I’d like to train someone, but they have to be dedicated and loyal - you can’t just sell out. If you keep a lid on the game it will survive.”