22 January 2024

How walking football has brought me fitness, wellbeing and ambition

22 January 2024

It’s the end of another balmy day on Mauritius, where my wife Jennie and I are on holiday, with the sun about to set and a refreshing sea breeze easing in from the coral reef.

Reclining on beanbags on the beach, we’re enjoying the luxury of having some time, for once, in our busy, deadline-driven existence to contemplate life. So, naturally the conversation turns to football (or more accurately, I steer it in that direction).

I’ve always loved sport – playing, watching, reading about it. And one of the things I regretted most in life was that I was no longer young enough to play football.

From as soon as I could walk, I was kicking a ball – in the park, at school, in the street, the back garden. When it was too dark or too wet to be outside, I would kick a balloon around the house in an imaginary slow-motion game.

Fast-forward to today and for some strange reason, in amongst the palm trees, turtles and local rum, I am missing the game. More pertinently, I am looking for a new challenge. At 59, my world seems to be shrinking, my options diminishing.

Then it comes to me: walking football. I will be a walking footballer. But not just any walking footballer – the best, good enough to represent my country. Maybe? Who knows? How hard can it be?

So it was, that in mid-October 2023, in my 60th year, I embarked on a journey to become an international footballer.

You’d imagine a sport with ‘walking’ in the title and played primarily by the over-50s to be sedate, slow even. But, after finding a local club in North Yorkshire, the reality of my first session on the hallowed Astroturf of a large secondary school was very different.

On arrival, I looked around the pitch at the other players – 10 men and three women. Many were like me – mid-late 50s – and probably also coming along thinking it will be a walk in the park.

Some don’t look too mobile; one guy appears to have knees which barely function. But that, I quickly realise, is why this is such an accessible sport. Pretty much anyone can play. The chap with the dodgy knees hangs around the goal area, a sort of old-fashioned centre-forward, and is surprisingly agile when the ball does reach him.

It doesn’t take long for me to start behaving like I am in my 20s again. I want to be at the heart of the action. I stretch, I turn, I shoot.

And after 10 minutes, I am exhausted. Nearly every muscle in my body is on fire and just the act of kicking a ball again after an absence of about 30 years throws my back into spasm. The last time I had played football was with my young sons in the park – they’re now in their mid-20s.

This is an hour-long session, so I retreat into goal to catch my breath. But there is no respite and I recoil as a powerful shot rebounds off my inside thigh (could have been worse I guess). I have a hole in my trainers and am wearing a fleece I quite often don for gardening. I didn’t really prepare for this.

It’s now a few months since that rather shocking re-introduction into the game, and three things have happened (four if you count new trainers and kit).

Firstly, I feel more positive about life and more prepared to take on new challenges. Like everyone, I still have days when the world seems to me an unfriendly place, but these are few and far between.

Last summer, I took the plunge into wild swimming, which had a similar effect. There is a lot to be said for regular exercise outdoors. Both lake swimming and walking football seem to have the effect of ‘resetting’ my body and mind.

I am now part of a community...

Secondly, I am now part of a community – well a WhatsApp group anyway. It’s often said that men are lacking in support systems. WF (as I now abbreviate it) has become that support system for the men (and women too) who play and feel they belong to something worthwhile. So many messages are exchanged during the course of an average day – and that doubles the day after a session.

There is humour, encouragement, and even a little counselling now and again when people are having a bad time. They say half the world is lonely and the other half just want to be left alone. Well, there is no room for loneliness in the world of WF.

Thirdly, I feel much fitter. Walking football can be as strenuous as you want it to be. Some people tend to stay in one place and wait for the ball to find them; others want to be part of the action all the time. For me, it’s 60 minutes of fast-paced walking, turning, kicking, and running to fetch the ball after I inevitably miss the goal.

I encourage a colleague at work, Chris Wiltshire, to give it a go, and commiserate as he hobbles into the office next day.

“My legs don’t belong to me,” he cries. “But I haven’t had as much fun for years! In my head I’m that 15-year-old who was running around everywhere. In reality, my body can barely keep up – even if it is only walking football.”

According to Sport England, there are now more than 200,000 active players across the country. Meanwhile, the Walking Football Association now has 650 clubs on its club database.

Notably, the late Bobby Charlton’s brother, Tommy, has been a keen player. He has also been a UK ambassador for the Walking Football Association.

Paul Carr, founder and chief executive of the association, says the sport is growing fast, and the age of players keeps on rising: “There are now many players aged 80-plus and we are probably going to have an England 80s team soon, to add to the other 11 England teams we run.

“The England 50s and 60s national teams won the inaugural World Nations Cup held at St George’s Park in 2023.”

Carr says health and wellbeing is at the heart of the sport’s ethos: “There are a myriad of mental and physical health benefits associated with this unique sport. At my own village club alone, we have players who have had cancer, heart attacks, strokes, new knees and hips, Parkinson’s and mental health issues.”

What does the future look like for the sport? Carr is ambitious: “Professional leagues, the Olympics, TV exposure, government support, major sponsors? Is it the new darts or women’s football? Look at their status 10 years ago.”

And what next on my own path to WF glory? Wembley? Old Trafford? No, a match against a nearby North Yorkshire team (my first truly competitive game). I’m already nervous and the game is still three weeks away. Perhaps on these winter evenings, I’ll blow up a party balloon and take on the cats in a practice match.

Tim Walker writes a walking football blog (walkersfootball.blogspot.com).

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