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ArticlesWalking Back to Fitness

Walking Back to Fitness

There’s a fine drizzle (mizzle, we call it, in this part of Dorset) as I make my way across the car park in the dark, towards the all-weather sports pitch at Beaminster School in Tunnel Road.

The air smells of cow dung and a gaggle of geese is in hysterics outside the nearby farm shop. If I didn’t know better I’d think they were laughing at the antics on the pitch.

Floodlights are in full glow and, while others are snuggled up at home, a handful of hardy souls is moving around in front of me. At first glance these men look like they’re running, albeit slowly. But they’re not. They’re taking part in walking football for the over-50s. And the language is as ripe as the manure cloud currently sitting over this part of town.

From the touchline, B-Fit Leisure Centre committee member Mike Runyard is keeping a keen eye on the ball and the players.

“Watch out,” he shouts at them but looks at me. “The press is here.”

Instantly, the language on the pitch is modified for my benefit, the goalkeeper saying ‘jolly good show, chaps’ when the ball hits the back of the net at the other end of the pitch.

“We started it in January last year and it’s grown in popularity. We’ve had a few injuries,” Mike Runyard says, pointing to his leg, “so not everyone is here. We have about 20 people taking part usually, including a couple of women. My wife’s one of them.”

My husband, Andrew, is too and he’s managed to rope in about five other men from our village every Monday night. He’s 64 and a retired company director.

“I love competitive team sports but at my age nothing seemed available until walking football started, so now I can get my competitive buzz as well as good exercise and camaraderie,” he says.

He’s not alone. Ever since a Barclays advert honed in on walking football in 2014, the sport has really taken off among older people wanting to keep fit and maintain that competitive edge.

Referee Ryan Sweetman says: “It’s massive. It originated in Bury and is really popular for people who used to play football or rugby.”

Ryan is an assistant at the leisure centre, a facility used by both the school and the wider community. At the tender age of 19, his word goes when it comes to the people on the pitch, some of whom are old enough to be his grandfather. I don’t envy him one bit. The rules of the game are that participants can only walk, there can be no offside play, no throw-ins and a player can only touch the ball a maximum of three times before passing to someone else.

There’s quite a lot of backchat going on and the goalkeeper is telling another player that he’s quite happy to be in goal because he had too much to drink at the weekend and can’t walk fast because he’d be sloshing about too much.

There is an incredibly fine line between walking fast and running. And the ref needs to have visited a famous optician to spot the difference. Every now and then Ryan blows his whistle at an offending player, dealing good naturedly with the whingeing on the pitch. But despite the banter, they respect him and his decisions.

I can see someone scuttling across the pitch like Max Wall, walking very quickly without actually breaking out into a run. I squint my eyes and realise it’s my local butcher who, despite wearing knees supports, is pretty nifty with the ball.

“Hey, Ref!” shouts a petulant opponent, a used car salesman, hands on hips. “He’s running!”

A plumber runs by and then gets shirty when the other team members yell at him and tell him to walk instead. There’s an outburst of swearing from my husband and then a retired engineer zooms past, closely followed by a former policeman on his first outing into the world of walking football.

He tackles and dribbles the ball towards the goal. He shoots, he scores. He’s ecstatic.

“My children won’t believe it, I haven’t played football since I was 14,” he says to me. “Can you email me a picture?”

Landscape gardener Nick David, 55, last played in the early 1990s, although he’s been very active on the local cricket scene for many years.

“It’s a great laugh and really good exercise,” he says after the game. “I love playing football but I haven’t played for 22 years. Forty years ago I had a trial with Plymouth as a goalkeeper but now I’m a box-to-box midfielder.”

From what I can see, Mike Saunders, who works for Framptons the butcher in Beaminster, is one of the fastest and most competitive players on the pitch, quietly walking on and getting on with the job in hand while his opponents protest rather too much.

“I never wanted to give up playing football but age caught up with me,” he says. “But the big kid is still there and I love playing. It’s a lovely group of blokes, great exercise and a fun evening.”

For more information on the classes available at the B-Fit Leisure Centre, visit www.bfitleisure.com

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