If Sunday league football is the ugly sister of the beautiful game, then walking football is surely its flirty spinster niece – with bags of energy in short bursts, you write it off at your peril.
The sport was devised in 2011 specifically for the over 50s and although the rules have yet to be completely standardised they are essentially the same as the familiar ones except there’s no offside, no play in the penalty area, no sliding tackles, no balls over head (or waist) height and no running… although if the evidence of time spent with Pelhams Park Rangers Walking Football Club at Kinson in Bournemouth is anything to go by there’s barely a hair’s breadth between accelerated scurrying and actual running.
‘It’s true that it’s a fine line and I’m not sure all of us know exactly where that line is all the time,’ says club organiser Andrew Kearley.
In the game that follows, refereed with impeccable impartiality by Eddie who also plays on one side, there are remarkably few infringements of that particular rule. The most frequently convened law is the ball being played above waist height – or for the purposes of Pelhams above the height of the board that surrounds the artificial pitch – an offence that seems to occur largely when ambition overtakes a player’s actual skill. They play three-touch walking football so no player can take more than three touches, which favours less mobile players and those blessed with fewer skills as it prevents anyone hogging the ball and going for a mazy stroll down the line.
‘We’re a pretty mixed bunch, aged from 50 up to 74, but mostly between 60 and 64. One of our regulars played for Bournemouth’s reserves in the 1960s and a lot of them played regularly in the various Dorset and Hampshire amateur leagues so I’m a little unusual in that I didn’t play football at all until later in life – I played squash and golf.’
Players warm up with stretches, a little light jogging and plenty of banter, but once the game is underway it’s pretty serious stuff. Decisions are disputed, appeals made, a few heated discussions break out and for all that they claim otherwise, scores are definitely being kept.
The ‘baby’ of the group, Rangers’ own Samba King, Brazilian-born Paolo Aleimeda is among the busiest players on the pitch, contesting every challenge, seeking out the ball and distributing it quickly.
‘I was 50 this year and have been playing walking football for about six months now, I really enjoy it,’ he says. ‘It’s a great way to keep fit and means I can keep playing the sport I love.’
German defender Martin Szalla moved to Bournemouth last summer from Swanage where he first discovered his passion for walking football.
‘This has been a great way for me to get out and meet people because when we came to Bournemouth I knew nobody at all,’ he says. ‘I played football as a boy and at university, but I had what must have been a 20-year break from the sport until I started playing walking football in Swanage about a year and a half ago. It’s perfect for me to be involved again with football.’
As well as the twice-weekly sessions at Pelhams Leisure Centre, Rangers play friendly games with other local sides and Broadstone, Swanage and Bournemouth District FA have all provided opposition home and away. They also take part in regular tournaments and last May got to the final of one in Southampton conceding only one goal in all matches before travelling to Cirencester for another only to get roundly beaten without scoring a single goal.
‘It’s an inclusive sport so if we go to a tournament we want everyone to get some game time, but as the cliché goes if you really want to win you have to play your best side so that can be dispiriting for someone who doesn’t get on the pitch,’ Andrew explains.
Players pay £3 a session at Pelhams and play in pick up teams of five, six or sometimes seven-a-side. Although there’s a nucleus of 16 or 18 who turn up every week there are 50 players registered to the club. All fill in a medical form so that in the event of a serious injury health professionals will have information about any medication a player is taking.
‘Walking football is set up to minimise contact,’ says Andrew, ‘but slips happen. I kicked the bottom of someone’s foot a few weeks ago and all my toes went black, which looked pretty nasty. We get players who miss weeks with muscle pulls, awkward twists, that kind of thing, but we play a courtesy rule that as soon as a man goes down the game stops, just to be sure everything’s fine. That said we have had one serious injury and Eddie, the referee, dislocated a shoulder.’
Midfield schemer Nigel Trapp, who played regular weekend football until he hung up his boots at the age of 38, nearly 25 years ago, is relishing the opportunity to extend his playing career.
‘I played in Bournemouth League Division Eight, never any higher never any lower,’ he recounts. ‘I love this though. Walking football is a great way to keep doing something I thought I’d never be able to do again. I feel so much better for having done it and although I can be a bit stiff the next day, by the time the next session comes around I’m ready to go again. It took four goes to get the hang of not running and not playing balls for other players to run on to, but once you’ve got that, it’s fine.’
The Tuesday session ends much like all those kickabouts in the street or on the park used to when the lads were kids – reluctantly.
‘Let’s play ’til the next goal,’ someone offers, but time has got the better of most of them for the day and it’s handshakes all round, claps on the back, some more gentle ribbing and the camaraderie of earlier returns. It’s good-natured stuff this walking football.
‘Well, I try my best,’ growls Glaswegian Pete Bell, the club’s very own Flying Scotsman, who had been doing his best to single-handedly regenerate the reputation of Scottish goalkeeping between the sticks. ‘Don’t be fooled by this – old men can kick!’
• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine