What Has Walking Football Ever Done For Me?

Hamish Husband

If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked, “Walking football, what’s that about?” I would have enough money to pay my recent gas bill. It’s simple, just walk. There is of course a subtext to this. If football is just walking, then what good does it do for me?

It is accepted that the sport of walking football originated in Derbyshire. John Shoot, who invented the new sport, recalled that the first ever serious match was covered on Sky TV at Chesterfield FC’s ground in 2011. A year later, Midlothian saw the start of walking football in Scotland. Tranent, through the Hibs Fit Fans, had a training programme for the older player, and it’s now one of the fastest growing sports in Scotland for men and women.

I also had the pre-conceived notion, “Ach, it’s just for old folk” forgetting, of course, I myself was advancing in years and that my hairline had receded faster than Scotland’s chances in this year’s Euros. However, I was blown away, addicted after my first game with Ayr United’s Football Academy over six years ago. It was fun, it was a good workout, and I was playing like my hero, Denis Law. For those non-fitba fans, Denis is possibly and probably Scotland’s greatest ever player. Apologies Kenny Dalglish.

Needless to say, a few weeks later, I was indeed Kenny Dalglish. I could be whichever player I wished; my walking football pals were themselves imitating their own heroes. I was just like the real thing, only slower.

The official rules are simple. Walk, don’t run, non-contact, and don’t kick the ball over head height. In retrospect, the rules committee that included non-physical contact didn’t understand the mindset of the 60+ Ayr Utd superstar. Me and my fellow players were brought up on the mud slopes of Ayrshire pitches where dirty and life-threatening, but perfectly legal tackles from behind, were mandatory.

Walking football is alive and well in Ayrshire. Trophy-laden Ayr Utd, Whittlets Vics, Kilmarnock FC, Maybole, Stewarton, and even Cumnock’s cup-winning Townhead Strollers, are developing the sport both as a leisure activity and with competitive teams.

Jim Kirk, a walking football legend, explained to me his beginnings in rural Ayrshire. A leaflet came through his front door advertising sessions at Maybole Academy. Word spread like a healthy epidemic – his fun was only just beginning.

“It just got better as the numbers playing locally in Maybole, Ayr, and Prestwick increased under the overview of the Ayr United Football Academy.”

For many, work provides a meaningful existence and is often the sole social and friendship network outside the family. Retirement breaks these links. Age UK reveals the importance of our ties to friends and family. Taking part in social activities may help us stay strong and sharp in later life as we age, slowing down cognitive decline, possibly lowering the risk of dementia. Lonely people are at greater risk of health problems and earlier mortality. I wish to live long enough to see Ayr United in the Champions League – now there is a personal motivation for a long and healthy life. Perhaps a separate award for delusion.

I reflect, as many other older folk do, on my grandparents. A kindly old grampa with a pipe and comfy slippers, formal in dress and attitude. Modern-day OAPs wear jeans and can be seen with no sense of embarrassment browsing in Boots for body products. The world, however, is full of information and advice on the importance of life-saving exercise and its extraordinary health benefits.

Walking football is certainly an excellent cardiovascular workout. Scientific evidence suggests that people who exercise regularly not only live longer but may live better – meaning they enjoy more years of life without pain and/or disability. The mantra is that 10,000 steps is the key to fitness, weight loss, and happiness. I once wore a Fitbit that measured 9994 steps after a particularly long and close-fought match.

Unfortunately, I didn’t quite reach the desired 10,000 because, after the match, I required assistance to reach my car. Live longer? I couldn’t climb the stairs to my bed!

Inflammation is inextricably linked with heart disease. Activation of the immune system acutely protects the body in the short-term through exercise. You can imagine our half-time team talks are full of health and efficiency chat! So, if you are asking me about myokines regulating skeletal muscle mass, google it yourself. More importantly, the more interesting question is: “How do you not run?” Easy, it’s dead difficult! it’s about changing one’s balance from running to walking, easier than it sounds. In competitions, they introduced the penalty to stop the nasty habit. Three runs and it’s a penalty!

Friendship and camaraderie are missing for many of us, but social relationships and belonging are vital to our mental health. We have such a laugh playing walking football, humour abounds, and timing is everything. I don’t think any malice was intended when I offered myself for Ayr United’s over-65 team and the manager paused and said, “Really?”

I was indeed called up for the Glasgow Cup, seemingly after a few call-offs. My self-esteem was further boosted when I was asked for ID to prove I was over 65. Chuffed, I informed the referee that the last time I had to prove my age was in 1974.

Competitions are growing. Last year’s Glasgow Cup was the largest tournament in the world. There are walking football sessions for dementia sufferers and Walking Football Scotland has entered into a partnership with Parkinson’s UK to support sessions across the country.

Ayr United stalwart, John Crawford, emphasises the professionalism involved in the structured sessions and says: “On top of that is the massive social benefit.” Mentioning the award by Ayr United being crowned Scotland’s Best Community Club in the SFA Grassroots Awards: “Things like this really do have an impact on people’s lives.”

Chatting to Jim Kirk, an Ayr United McDonald’s Community Award Winner, in his Straiton home, he has so many memories of tournaments, and mentions Team Scotland twice winning the International Super Masters Walking Football World Cup, firstly in Bristol in 2018, and again in 2022 at FIFA’s Zurich Headquarters under his leadership, management and cultured play. He says to remember the 4 Fs: Football, Fitness, Fun, and Friendship. Jim proudly shows me his brimming trophy cabinet and asks, “What has walking football ever done for me?”