Walking football? It’s no stroll in the park
Mention of walking football prompts recollections of that Barclays commercial in which Steve Rich enlists the bank’s help to promote the sport.
With the help of a Barclays’ digital assistance, Rich set up the website Walking Football United to encourage and inspire people over the age of 50 to keep playing the beautiful game, albeit at a slower pace.
Walking football was initially founded in 2011 by the Chesterfield FC Community Trust, the scheme aims to get over 50s active in sport again and regularly exercising.
The Barclays advert brought it to the attention of football lovers across the nation who no longer thought they had what it takes to play as they did in their younger days, and since then, the sport has gone from strength to strength.
Walking Football United has recently just registered it’s 800th club as the strolling version of soccer continues to take the UK’s older generations by storm.
I paid a visit to Colchester United’s Community Stadium where I met up with members of the club’s walking football team to find out more.
They were national finalists last season but unfortunately didn’t make it out of the group stages at the FA’s training base St George’s Park after losing 1-0 to eventual winners Blackpool.
THE RULES: Any player caught running concedes a free kick to the opposition. No player can head the ball and there is no slide tackling – a gentleman version of the game some might say…
As I stood under the floodlights and witnessed a hatful of fantastic goals during their training session, I was immediately impressed by the technical skills of the team as they switched the ball around with pinpoint control.
Player and assistant coach Terry Beeton was eager to point out that competitive nature of the sport and the overall quality of the team this season.
“The quality is so good, I’m finding it hard to get in the team!” Terry laughed.
“Lots of these guys play for different reasons, some for health benefits, some just to be part of a team, but most importantly, we all want the same thing: to win.”
The session was filled with smiles and laughter, and Mark Gooch, a Colchester United player back in the 1990s, was the loudest presence on the pitch as he rallied his side while dishing out some textbook banter.
Gooch, whose professional career was cut short at a young age by injury, doesn’t hesitate when asked what type of football he prefers.
“We have such a laugh and that’s what football is about at this age, having some banter, finishing the game and going for a beer”
“Without a doubt, walking football. I was never one for running anyway.
“There are less injuries playing this way and it’s very technical when you don’t run. It’s all about the ball, picking the right pass, the movement, I love it.
For the former U’s player, it presented the perfect route back into the game he loves after an old friend persuaded him to take part.
“Me and another player, Clarkey [Colin Clarke], played on the same five-a-side team. I saw on Facebook he was playing walking football, I admit I took the mickey for a while until he twisted my arm to come down and give it a try.
“It’s great to be back playing competitively. We train and work hard. We also have such a laugh and that’s what football is about at this age, having some banter, finishing the game and going for a beer.”
Gooch’s competitive streak is still there for all to see as he discusses Colchester’s elimination from the national finals.
“I hate to say it, but three of our players were on holiday during the finals. If we had them three, we would have gone extremely close.
“We don’t just play for the fun, we go out onto the pitch to win and we fight to win every time”
“We only lost 1-0 to Blackpool, who went on to win it obviously, but the chances we had in that game… It just wasn’t our day unfortunately.
“Playing at St George’s Park was great, the atmosphere was brilliant and it really did get quite tasty with some teams, we gave all we had.
“It’s certainly motivation for this season and an experience which can only make us stronger as a team.”
Once a pro, always a pro, and Gooch still has that desire for victory, despite his claims about the importance of walking football’s social side.
“You can always tell the ones who have played football competitively before,” he tells me.
“Their movement is good, they know where to be at all times, and they find the transition, like I did, straightforward.”
He adds: “All we want to do is win, we don’t just play for the fun, we go out onto the pitch to win and we fight to win every time.”
As Colchester’s veterans aim for more success this season, it is clear that walking football will surely continue to grow in popularity – whether it’s among ex pros or those with little or no playing experience.
The beautiful game is not, and never has been, just for the young…