On the pitches in the Deaf Village Ireland community center in Cabra, Dublin on a Wednesday afternoon, 14 men dressed in bibs are stretching their legs.
They split into teams of seven and discuss tactics before the whistle blows to signal kick-off.
It was almost a football match like any other. The differences being that it is aimed at people aged 50 and over, it is non-contact and no running is allowed.
“Sorry, that was the bad leg!” shouts Derek Reid (53) after a wayward pass fails to find a teammate.
It might not be Champions League fare, but the game, Reid says, has given him “a new lease of life”.
“It’s football but without the aggravation of trying to catch a 20-year-old,” he says. “It’s safe, it’s so enjoyable and I love doing it. It’s great for old fitness. But, in fairness, it’s more the mental part of it. I don’t worry about anything when I’m out on that pitch. I come out here on a Wednesday afternoon, and for that hour I’m 18 again.”
Started by the older people’s charity Age and Opportunity in March, and run in conjunction with local Men’s Shed groups, walking football aims to encourage interaction between people who may have experienced periods of loneliness or inactivity during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Five transition year students also took part on this occasion, in an attempt to encourage intergenerational mixing.
Despite the older age profile, the sense of competition between the teams was intense with shouts of ‘Ah ref!’ directed towards Joe Shrieves, the man with the whistle, who had to stand firmly behind his decisions.
“High ball,” he says, blowing his whistle. “Penalty.”
Shrieves normally plays himself, but the 76-year-old tore his Achilles tendon at a previous session and is waiting to get back to match fitness.
“It’s still nice to be involved,” he says of his temporary role.
The oldest player on Wednesday was Bobby Casey, who turned 76 in January. He became interested in football when he got married in 1968, he jokes, “to get away from my wife”.
Locals reached out to him when the group was being established six months ago, as more players were needed.
“I said I’d give it a go,” he says, “and now I come down every Wednesday.”
Stephen Harrison says the primary benefit for him in taking to the pitch is being able to socialise.
“It’s about meeting new people,” he says. “You get to meet new people with all different levels of fitness. Obviously, the fitness is a big thing too.
“It starts off slowly because it’s something that a lot of people wouldn’t have done for a long time, so it helps that it’s actually walking football. You need to walk about at our age anyway.”
Harrison adds: “It’s nice when you’re going back to your family and your grandkids are coming in saying they’ve been playing football as well. And they say, ‘you’re not playing football at your age?’.”
For 69-year-old Seán King, the weekly sporting ritual allows him to turn back the clock. He loves the “buzz of just playing football, like the way we did when we were younger”.
“It’s marvelous; you just can’t beat that. I hadn’t kicked a football for almost 35 years or something like that,” he says.
Kings remembers getting his first football as a child and putting Dubbin wax on it.
“Footballs were so different in those days. Each panel had a seam, so you had to protect the seam if you wanted to get any life out of your football. It was a ritual in itself.”
Opportunities to socialize during the pandemic years were very “scarce”, he says, so it is nice to be able to mix with old and new friends.
“They’re a good bunch of lads as well. Some of them I’ve known for years, and others I’ve only met in the last few months.”
Paul Gallier, active program assistant manager at Age and Opportunity, says walking football is an ideal post-Covid activity.
“From speaking to the men anecdotally, the pandemic just had a detrimental effect, mostly on their mental health,” he says. “They couldn’t get out to exercise and the fact that they weren’t meeting up with people they would normally meet up with.
“You often hear that men speak shoulder to shoulder; I think you can see that here as well. Even afterwards, we would encourage them to have a cup of tea. They might chat informally there; you know about things going on in their lives and different problems to try to help each other out.”
The great thing about it, he adds, was that it was a “leveler”.
“Whether you’ve played football before or not is irrelevant, you don’t have a disadvantage because everybody has to walk. I think that has helped bring the men together.”