The first surprise I encountered when I agreed to take part in the ever-growing phenomenon of Walking Football was the scheduled kick-off time - 5pm.
“That’s a bit early isn’t it?” I remarked to my girlfriend. “They’re probably all retired,” she responded, not unreasonably.
It was a fair assumption; after all Walking Football was set-up as a sedate alternative to the beautiful game, reducing the usual frenetic hustle and bustle to a leisurely stroll to allow senior players to once again participate in the game they love. While the rules are pretty much the same – save for smaller numbers per team and no offsides – a free-kick is given for even a hint of a jog meaning this new slowed-down variation of the sport is tailor-made for those whose apocryphal trial for Everton back in the day was in black and white.
Yet when I turned up at a local community-run AstroTurf pitch I found a group of guys of very different ages waiting for the gates to open. That was my second surprise. Of the ten present two were in their thirties, three in their early forties (including myself), while the rest were of an age where decorum stopped me from asking.
My third and final revelation came once the whistle blew. This wasn’t the novelty experience I was anticipating. This was amazing. But we’ll come to that shortly.
You have probably heard of Walking Football through a long-running advert from a high street bank. Certainly whenever I have brought up the subject this past week it’s been name-checked back to me and the publicity it has helped generate – along with sterling work done behind the scenes by the F.A – has resulted in clubs and venues springing up all over the place. There are currently 781 officially recognised by the Walking Football United website with countless more independently hiring out pitches by the hour and throwing half the participants bright bibs. Last weekend saw the inaugural Home Nations Championship held in Hartlepool with England narrowly pipping Scotland in the final. The popularity of this intriguing pastime is quickening its pace into a sprint.
When Steve Rich started up the website he couldn’t possibly conceive how much it would change the course of his life. It’s led to a starring role in one of the adverts alongside Alan Shearer, Harry Kane and Sir Geoff Hurst and to discovering a multitude of like-minded new acquaintances who delight in playing a game their bones had kidded them into thinking was now beyond them.
It’s also led to patiently fielding questions from the likes of me and the morning after my fair-to-middling debut I asked what exactly constitutes a prohibited jog.
“It’s a big bone of contention up and down the country. I understand the problem because you get guys in their fifties but they’re still a bit quick but the pre-requisite is walking. You can get into a little power-walk but the giveaway is when the leading leg bends at the knee and the player is at pace.”
When Steve was 27 a serious car accident ruptured his knee and tore a cruciate ligament and for many years he believed his Sunday League days were a thing of the past. He tried golf but it only frustrated him until a work colleague passed on information about a fledgling activity that was taking off in his area, a discipline that didn’t necessitate the more demanding requirements of regular football.
“It was a jaw-dropping moment. Wow I could play again! It’s also a great cardio workout and you gain muscle condition but for me there’s the social well-being which is above everything else. You have the banter and camaraderie and there’s some great friendships blossoming from weekly sessions. It improves social circles.”
The benefits don’t end there. Steve tells me of people returning to manageable exercise following operations or who suffer from dementia or depression who have found significant reward from the regular sessions. Indeed a member of his club’s committee was so severely agoraphobic he was a virtual recluse for four years. He now plays in goal and is looking for work.
Steve Pygott, who started up the weekly game at which I played, echoes the positivity that Walking Football promotes, affects he has already witnessed: “I coach the kids and this is a chance for youth football to give something back. I found there wasn’t a way for the parents and grandparents to get involved and this is it. If everybody gets involved in the community it becomes a better place.”
This all-inclusiveness is Walking Football’s greatest strength but also poses a potential bump in the road in that younger, fitter players are now cottoning on to its appeal. Is there a danger of its original intention becoming compromised by an influx of fist-pumping 5-a-siders full of testosterone and shouting ‘man on’ a lot? Steve Rich admits it’s a concern.
“We encourage all ages at our club but I know it has put some over-fifty year olds off because the younger players are quicker of mind and feet. A lot of clubs stipulate certain age categories so there is a more level playing field. The same goes for the sixty-pluses because although there is only a ten year gap there is a wide variation of ability.”
There was certainly a wide variation of ability in our particular game - namely that nine had some and I did not - yet it quickly became apparent that it mattered very little as competitiveness instantly gave way to a collective encouragement to adapt. And there was a lot of adapting to do.
Perfectly weighted through-balls often rolled comically out of play as team-mates fought every instinct to break their stride. Committing yourself to challenges was counter-productive as opponents literally saw you coming every step of the way and simply passed around you. Finding space required ninja nous without the option to dart into it.
This is football minus the blood and thunder and played entirely in your head. This is football heightened to its purest form. Pass to feet and move when in possession, stand off and anticipate when not. If you’re a Sunday League Beckenbauer this is unquestionably the game for you.
Soon enough the score became an irrelevance and a small group of observers had headed over wondering why this familiar sight as they walked their dogs was slowed down to half its usual pace. They were curious too by the laughter as the game became reduced to a personal duel between a middle-aged guy and his elderly father in goal. That’s what I took most from my experience. That last bit.
As for me it’s time to put my cards on the table. Several years ago I succumbed to a serious long-term illness. It took my career from me. A relationship too. In time it deprived me of my outlook on life. Gradually my health was restored, to a better level at least, but I’m pretty sure that the physical exertions of sport will always be beyond me. Yet I write about football. I live it, breathe it.
Last Friday was the first occasion in well over a decade that I’d kicked a ball with any purpose.
On the half-hour mark I knocked it past a trailing leg and before I could right myself another challenge came in. I instinctively changed direction hearing my opponent groan in annoyance as I did so. I was now aware this was becoming something of a jinking run but though only one man now stood between me and the keeper a team-mate was in acres of space. ‘In for a penny,’ I thought and instead enacted a step-over that put me through on goal. I slotted it to the keeper’s right, the ball satisfyingly skidding in off the post.
I could get wordy and pretentious at this point and try to elucidate what that moment meant to me. But I won’t. I’ll simply say that it felt really good.