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Meet the over-55s group who are feeling younger each week

With walking football the latest twist on a sport to sweep the country, RUSSELL CLAYDON went to Walsham-le-Willows, the first club in west Suffolk to launch it, to see if the craze lives up to the hype.

Monday Night Football is known for being fast, frantic and a great way to ease yourself into another often hectic working week.

But while Sky television subscribers are settled down watching the Premier League format made famous by Richard Keys and Andy Gray, down at Walsham-le-Willows Sports Club, things are progressing at a rather different pace.

‘Well done, ‘Lionel’,” calls one bald player to another, after he attempts a bit of skill vaguely reminiscent of a certain regular winner of the world footballer of the year title.

‘More like Lionel Blair!’ comes a quick-witted reply from the opposition.

‘Imagine what he’d be like if he was playing with both his own hips!’

Welcome to the world of walking football, a game which has been designed to give the over-55s a new lease of life on the pitch.

And, judging by the banter flying around, it looks like it could be a lot of fun.

One problem though... Anyone who has seen me ‘play’ knows I like a little run up and down the wing when it takes my fancy (usually when former BFP United goalkeeper Derek Bish least wanted me to!).

In walking football, which coincidently is said to have originated in the other Bury (Greater Manchester), doing just that will see a free-kick awarded against you.

Fighting that urge was not the only hard thing I found on the night.

There were several occasions when the other thing I enjoy doing on a football pitch — pinging a pass from deep — turned me from hero to zero.

In this game, precision and positional awareness are key and if your pass rolls more than a step ahead of anyone with any kind of pace, it is about as effective as kicking it to the opposition.

‘Sorry guys,’ I apologetically say, again.

Positioning is also of paramount importance. It does not take me long to notice it takes a while to get anywhere while resisting the urge to break into a jog.

Even if you are in defence and decide to go on a jaunt up field, as this reporter occasionally likes to, you had better have someone else covering your half if your attack is broken up, because you are not returning to protect your goal in a hurry!

The big myth you may still currently hold about this version of the game though, like I did, is that you do not get very warm, which is not good for a winter sport in this country.

But, starting with a hoodie on due to my scepticism this would resemble any kind of fitness, I was soon throwing it off on to the sidelines as things quickly heated up.

And by the end of our hour-long session there were more than a few panting (and a fair few steaming heads!).

All the joys of playing football: the pride at scoring a goal (did I mention I scored a hat-trick?), the jubilation at winning with a next-goal ending format, putting in a hard tackle (apologies to Walsham chairman Mike Powles!) and, of course, the incessant banter: ‘put it on me ‘ead!’ - ‘that’s the shiny bald thing, by the way!’ are all still there.

But, importantly, as Powles and the other nine participants are quick to point out in a chat with me afterwards, it allows people of a certain age to come out of retirement and get back on a place that holds and creates great memories.

“It’s great fun and good exercise. I think a couple of nights a week will make a big difference,” said 56-year-old Steve Cayley, one of a trio who have reunited to play together after their last match with each other at Walsham back in the 1980s.

”How much harm can it do? There is not much impact, except from Gordon!”

A sensible voice, which could be 66-year-old Neill Taylor, quickly added: “I think after a few weeks we have all improved.”

But then someone mentions the evening sessions, which began back in September last year with their current oldest member a mere 69 years of age, have been so popular they have even got sponsorship...from the local funeral parlour!

What is seriously clear though is this is an activity which has plenty of life, and banter, in its legs yet.


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