Webster on Walking Football…
Broadcaster and journalist, Mark Webster pitched up recently to a walking football club session with a number of preconceptions but, as he concedes, he was both surprised and impressed with what he witnessed…
They were at first glance an unlikely band of brothers. And sister. A genuine jumble of shapes, sizes, ages and appearances – sporting everything from baggy trackie bottoms to skin-tight shiny tops. Not necessarily the first group of people you’d point at and say, yes, they are definitely off for an hour of competitive football.
But you know what they say about first impressions. Sixty minutes later, these same people left the field of play, while at the same time leaving it all out there. This then, was my first up close and personal experience of the sport of walking football.
In my capacity as a broadcaster on Talksport 2, I had heard our guest on one particular show, the venerable football commentator Alan Parry, make a very passionate case for walking football. So much so, it had my colleague Ray Stubbs – who had once worn Tranmere Rovers’ shirt with pride – seriously thinking about breaking out the shorts and trainers again. So I thought it was only right that I should go and experience it first hand.
I went along one Thursday morning to The Better Leisure Centre, Chesham where the coach/referee had organised a morning game. A few stretches later, they were off. And I have to confess here, I did arrive with a few preconceptions about how this notion of walking football would now actually play out in front of me.
First of all, I assumed that it would be played in something of a swarm. Not a bit of it. One of the beauties of the sport is that it can accommodate all ages and abilities. And agilities. This in itself seems to help open the game up, so that play is spread all around the pitch; as a result of both the individual skill of the player, and of their capacity to get up and down. It immediately means that not only is it genuine end to end stuff, but also that, regardless of fitness or skill levels, you are always in it.
So whether skipping across the surface, knees straight, at quite the lick. Or moving in, shall we say, a more stately manner, that is the point. You are moving. And pretty much constantly. Even when the whistle blows for an infraction.
Another thing I assumed is that it would be a somewhat static experience. Not so much walking, as standing football. Again, it was quite the opposite. Yes, the ball does get to do a lot of the hard work as their is no sprinting around with or without it. As I just mentioned there is space, but you still have to go and find it. In two halves of around 20 minutes, I saw no one – regardless of their level of fitness – really take a long blow. Catch their breath, yes. But always with a beady eye on where the next smart place to be was. Were they even really out of puff?
Indeed, that’s a great time to get on your bike, it seems. Steal some territory while your opposite number might be distracted. There was a lot of ‘ghosting’, as they used to say of World Cup winner Martin Peters in his hay day. And I think I am relatively safe in thinking that people reading this will be perfectly aware of Martin Peters’ hay day!
So that’ll be movement and tactics, not to mention all the passing, the shooting, the tackling…hold on, in spite of what at first glance might be evidence to the contrary, it looks like a game of football had broken out!
I was told that one of the players I was watching had been recruited from the gym where he was trying to get his fitness back. He has now put walking football into his lifestyle mix, and albeit with something of a wobble on one leg, is now lighter on the scales, as well as on his feet. While another, it was pointed out, was a very physically changed man. And although he needed on occasion to take on goalkeeping duties to reboot the body, he was nevertheless apparently fitter and more mobile than he had been in many years. In other words, the beauty of walking football is that it isn’t a level playing field. It can accommodate everyone and anyone, and as a result, a proper game then ensues.
Which is all magnificent, life affirming stuff. But it’s not the best thing.
The best thing is that I discovered walking football refs have their own unique gesture as part of their officiating repertoire. And it’s the one that signals ‘running’. Which I am delighted to say – and like Martin Peters, I’m sure everyone reading this will remember Little Eva? Or Kylie?! – is nothing other than ‘The Locomotion’.
So come on, come on, do the walking football with me.