The beautiful game at a walking pace | Walking football

Walking Football

In December I turned 77 and was rueing the fact that I had not tried walking football until a couple of months previously.

I had seen details about it, read about it, and picked up a leaflet about it in my local doctor’s some time before, but until late September had not seriously thought about trying it.

I guess it was partly the fact that when I did pluck up the courage to show my face, along with a friend as an extra confidence boost, it was in the Elite Training Centre at Turf Moor, home of Premiership club Burnley. The word ‘Elite’ gave it a glow, plus the fact that it was indoors.

We were welcomed by Sam Wilcock, the coach in charge of the session, one of several in the area run by Burnley FC in the Community. I filled out a form which included plenty of medical details, and then joined a crowd of other guys (and two women, incidentally) for a 15-minute warm-up session, stretching muscles that hadn’t been used for some years in my case.

In fact although I played football as a youngster – even turning out for my junior school team – I have always been a journalist and have reported on games all over the country, so only once did I appear in a ‘proper’ game.

That was in the old Southern League many years ago when the team I was reporting on arrived for an away fixture with one man short. I became that man, playing under an assumed name. I suppose had they known about that wicked 90 minutes in my past, I might never have been admitted to join the Elite group in Burnley.

Anyway, after the exercises we were divided into three teams of seven and played a series of games with one team side-lined while the others played for five minutes or so. Sometimes just two teams play.

It might have only been at walking pace but it seemed fast and furious, and some people appear to walk faster than others. Passing was the key and accuracy and sharp reflexes were a distinct advantage.

Our young trainer, and referee, had already pointed out that the things that were not allowed: running, tackling from behind and kicking the ball over chest high.

We had a few fouls given, mainly thanks to over-exuberant tackles, and the time seemed to race along until we were subjected to a series of exercises to cool down before finishing.

It was a brilliant hour, not only enjoyably spent but also playing a key role in keeping the elderly fit (or getting them fit, in my case).

The Walking Football idea was the brainwave of someone at Chesterfield FC Community Trust in 2011 trying to get the over-50s to exercise more. But then Barclays Bank gave it more exposure with a television advert.

According to the website it was Steve Rich who then gave it impetus with a website identifying teams all over the country who were keen to follow suit.

Steve, now in his 50s, had given up Sunday League soccer after being involved in a car accident and was delighted with the idea of walking football.

When Barclays organised the starstudded event to publicise it, among those taking part were Alan Shearer, Sir Geoff Hurst and Fabrice Muamba, who suffered a cardiac arrest while playing for Bolton in a Cup game in 2012 and died on the pitch before miraculously returning to life.

Now there are teams in many countries on the Continent and America, Colombia and Mexico.

In the UK there are about 450 clubs – and rising – as its popularity soars. If my experience is anything to go on it is set to grow and grow. There are country-wide competitions, and the hope that internationals or even Olympic recognition could follow.

There are many clubs in Lancashire and Yorkshire already attracting men and women over 50 who, like me, could do with a bit of exercise. It isn’t as if you need much: an old pair of trainers and a tracksuit, or shorts and a T-shirt, are sufficient, although I am sure I spotted some of the guys in our session with shin pads stuffed down their socks. Wimps!

It isn’t just the fact that we are using muscles that may have been dormant for some time. When I made my one off Southern League appearance I recall two moments on the pitch which still pain me. I was stuck out on the wing for most of the game (the usual position for those injured in the days before substitutes were allowed) and could not fail to hear voices in the crowd criticising my performance (fortunately, the assumed name protected me from personal insult) but on one occasion I cut in from the wing and, with only the advancing goalkeeper ahead hit the ball as hard as I could. It hit the goalkeeper in a particularly painful area but unfortunately he went down clutching the ball.

As the coach told me afterwards: “Why didn’t you switch the ball to your left foot and shoot round him?” Why indeed? Walking Football offers encouragement – not discouragement.

According to the website walkingfootballunited.co.uk there are 25 clubs in Lancashire, 18 in West Yorkshire, 13 in East Yorkshire, 18 in Merseyside, five in Cumbria and 52 in Greater Manchester – and hundreds more in other parts of the country.

The site also provides a facility to identify the clubs near where you live. Just let your fingers do the walking, and then, when you have found a club, your legs can take over.

Abby Turner, Burnley FC in the Community’s Health and Wellbeing manager, pointed out that the charity based at Burnley FC, is a self-financed operation, with its Walking Football programme funded by a grant from Sport England.

There are four sessions a week at three local venues every week (burnleyfccommunity.org). Abby, who has been with the organisation for just over 18 months told me: “We have a mixture of abilities attending our sessions, men and women. The majority are over 50 but people over 18 can attend. Our walking football sessions provide individuals with the opportunity to take part in the beautiful game at a slower pace. It caters for individuals who are recovering from injury, want to learn a new sport, improve confidence and become part of a team.”

It also provides a lot of pleasure, quite apart from the fact that muscles are being nudged into action. Smugly I can reveal that on my first session I scored a goal, side-footing it casually into the net as if I had been doing it all my life. Much more fun than sitting in a press seat with a pad and pencil, or laptop, jotting notes as other people do the scoring, or missing.

Of course I missed a few but oh, the one that didn’t get away!

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