‘Stop trying to walk the ball into the net!” It’s a complaint that can be heard on the terraces of football grounds everywhere. But now, thanks to the exponential growth of walking football in the UK, there’s a whole new meaning to the phrase.
The good news is, you don’t need the lightening pace of Theo Walcott, the mesmeric dribbling skills of Lionel Messi or the Rooney-in-his-prime-esque ability to pick out the perfect pass from 30 yards to play it, either.
Walking football is exactly as it sounds - it’s a slowed down version of the beautiful game that’s taken off among a new breed of latter-life sportsmen who probably thought they had hung up their boots for good years ago.
Aimed predominantly — though not exclusively — at the over-fifties footballer, walking football was invented five years ago in Chesterfield, and it’s spread like proverbial wildfire up and down the country since then, with clubs popping up all over the place.
Two years ago there were just 125 clubs offering the game — then came a Barclays television advert in July 2014 featuring a walking football team and its popularity skyrocketed.
Now, there are around 800 clubs playing, with thousands of former players rekindling their love for the game — albeit in more leisurely fashion than when they were in their sporting prime.
“Walking football is providing an ideal opportunity for men to socialise and engage in regular activity - often at a time of life when developing new friendships can be difficult,” says Steve Rich, founder of Walking Football United, a website he created to bring the ever-growing number of registered teams in the UK closer together.
“A lot of the men who join in are doing so when their working life is coming to an end,” he continues.
“Retirement for some can mean a loss of sense of purpose.
“You lose the day-to-day social interaction and the physical activity you’ve had for 40-odd years.”
According to Rich, it’s not just old-timers who have taken up the game - it’s also proving popular with players coming back from illness and serious injuries.
“People who’ve got too old or injured have to leave regular football,” he says.
“Walking football is a way to extend their football career without the pace and twisting and turning of the faster game. But it’s immensely good exercise.”
So what is walking football?
Based on association football, a couple of key changes to the rules mean a player can concede a free-kick if they run during the game. This restriction, coupled with a ban on slide-tackling, is aimed at avoiding injuries whilst promoting cardiovascular fitness with the least amount of stress on the body.”
Given all the benefits, it’s no surprise that walking football has become so popular — and there are now tournaments where clubs from different towns and cities can pit their skills against one another.
That said, with no standard set of rules — except that running is forbidden — disputes have become common at competitions across the country.
Now, though, the Football Association is stepping in, drafting a rulebook that it hopes everyone can agree on.
“The challenge is to retain its appeal as an accessible, fun, recreational pastime, but add a formal element for those that seek to take the game to a more competitive level,” says Andy Dyke, the FA’s national participation manager for recreational football.
Contact your local sports centre to find out if they are offering this service. Or to find a walking football club in your area, visit www.walkingfootballunited.co.uk.
And remember, you’re never too old to bend it like Beckham.