Smudger can’t wait to get strolling again

Brian Jeeves
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Another lockdown, another spell kicking our heels on the proverbial sideline of life.

Of course, it’s all for a very good reason, and every one of us is longing for the time when a little normality resumes. But in the meantime, individual and collective sacrifices frustratingly remain the order of the day.

Socially, we’ve all taken a hit; “I’m missing the walking football, that’s for sure,” West Ham-daft Gary Smith tells me.

But walking football is far more than a kickabout for Garon Park goalkeeper, ‘Smudger’ – It is an important commodity in his weekly routine. An opportunity to mix socially, get fit and generally meet like-minded people over the age of 50.

Gary turns 60 next month: “I’d not kicked a ball in anger since leaving school in the mid-70s,” he explained.

“Going back about five years ago, I was approached by a neighbour about playing walking football. He’d seen the Barclays advert, promoting the game, and asked if I fancied a get-together for a kickabout.

“At the time, I was carrying a few pounds. I knew I needed to do something, fitness-wise. Seven of us turned up. My father was a goalkeeper. But because of the various ailments, I’ve got, we thought I’d be better suited to playing between the sticks.

“So I started out playing for Blackmore, purely a social thing. An hour a week on a Monday evening. I’ve done that for five years and really enjoy it. We don’t play any tournaments or league games. Before lockdown, the team would go to Spain once a year for a mini-tour.

“Two years ago I joined Chelmsford City. We played against them with Blackmore and I got talking to Mark Elnaugh who managed City. He invited me to come along.

“When Mark confirmed he was assisting the formation of a team at Garon Park, I said I’d come along to boost the numbers and here I am.”

Gary’s story is proof if ever it was needed, that anyone can still enjoy football: “Absolutely right. I’ve had two artificial hips on my right leg and a knee replacement on the left. I’m currently waiting for more surgery, with both knees set to be replaced. That is why I wobble around the football pitch,” he joked.

“Not just that – glasses. You can play wearing glasses. You find many players at the older age groups playing in glasses of some description. The eyesights not what it used to be, but the guys want to play on.”

Having not participated in any form of competitive football before discovering the walking game, Gary urged anyone curious to give it a go, insisting it had also helped his state of mind: “Yes, I think so, bear in mind where I was four of five years ago. I’d been made redundant, my mum had passed away. It wasn’t a good time in my life. Walking football has helped me cope to a certain degree.

“I think it’s about being a part of a team – being around likeminded people. Even if it is only for two hours a week, it does make a difference. Of course, you then have the social media side of things which keeps the band together as well.

“At the end of the day, I look forward to going out training or playing in competitive matches which is the next stage that Garon Park Walking Football Club is going into.”

Brian Jeeves