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Players in action during the Walking football festival at Irishtown Stadium in Ringsend, Dublin Pic: Sportsfile

Players in action during the Walking football festival at Irishtown Stadium in Ringsend, Dublin Pic: Sportsfile

Players in action during the Walking football festival at Irishtown Stadium in Ringsend, Dublin Pic: Sportsfile

John Keogh was cutting the hedge in his back garden when he got the call. At 78, the former Shamrock Rovers great, who shared a testimonial in 1967 with Pat Courtney, thought he wouldn't be kicking a football again. But he was wrong.

John was about to be introduced to the world of Walking Football.

"I went up to Poppintree, where they have indoor and outdoor pitches," he recalls. "And found I knew some of the lads from when we played schoolboy football. It's great to be mixing with guys who played football all those years ago and now they're doing it again - at walking pace."

Walking Football is becoming a craze.

Evangelical

In England, there are hundreds of clubs and television exposure has helped spread the message that men, and women, over 50 can enjoy this sport without fear of injury.

Paul Cumiskey is evangelical about the sport.

"I'd played football," he says. "But there came a time when I wasn't up to speed any more. When I saw walking football on television, I looked around to see if we had it here."

Paul's research lead him to Poppintree where the sport was being encouraged through the Bohemians Foundation. He was hooked.

Today, he's so enthusiastic he has a flyer printed to promote the sport.

"Walking football is a slower paced version of the game which is acceptable to all regardless of age, health or ability," he explains.

"Due to its health and fitness benefits, and strong sense of fun and enjoyment, walking football can help keep people playing, even those whose joints might just be a little bit rusty."

Remember the referee with the long blonde Roy of the Rovers hair? That's Paul Cumiskey.

Paul is 54 now and can't get enough of Walking Football. He's even set up a Facebook page, Walking Football Dublin, to help spread the word.

"It doesn't make a difference if people haven't played before," he explains. "The game centres around the following key principles: no running, non contact, no kicking the ball above head height. Apart from that, it's an ordinary game of football."

Although there's been Walking Football played here for the last few years, Ireland is lagging behind England.

"We're still playing with bibs but a lot of visiting teams have full strips with crests and everything," says Paul enviously. But part of the charm of this sport is its inclusivity. Women and men, who never played football before, have been getting their game.

"It's all about participation," says Paul. "When people try it, they love it. There's nothing at stake. We try to even up the teams. Numbers are increasing so there are plans to get games going wherever and whenever there's interest."

Former footballers enjoy the experience. While most have had knee or hip jobs done over the years, they feel comfortable getting to knock a ball about at walking pace.

"Tackling isn't part of the game," says John Keogh. "It's great for men of my age to be able to enjoy it without fear of being hurt. When I played my first game, I thought, "I'd love to be able to do this at least once a week." It keeps the body in good shape. You've got to concentrate when playing. It's terrific. It's gone from good to great."

Walking Football is being supported by the FAI Grassroots initiative.

Buzz

"John Delaney is right behind this," says Paul Cumiskey. "He often drops in to see us when we play at Abbotstown. We had John Giles drop in recently. It was a great buzz for the lads to meet and chat with John."

While Paul gets his kicks three or four days a week in Dublin, it's his trips to play in Portugal that have shown him what's possible.

"I've been in the Algarve playing in tournaments four times this year," he says. "The novelty of drinking at the pool and so on is gone. The ex-pats are now playing walking football. It gets a bit serious at that level. They have tournaments and referees."

Paul is hoping to put together a team from here to take part in a tournament in Albufeira in April.

"We're beginning to get enough players involved now to start having competitive teams," he says.


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