From the Airco Arena to the KCOM Stadium in four short months – who would have thought it?!!

The Senior Tigers walking football group began playing on 3rd November last year and I believe all of us were taking a leap into the unknown, as this format is still relatively new. However, after those tentative early steps, we soon ‘found our feet’ and in March we played in our first tournament, at York, when competing against teams which had a much younger average age than us, and were also very well practised and much better organised on the pitch. It is fair to say the event was a steep learning curve for us!!

When the York date was arranged we were also told that there was a possibility that we might be invited to put on a ten-minute exhibition game at half-time during the Tigers game against Burnley. For any footballer, regardless of age or ability, the opportunity to kick a ball on a league football ground is a mouth-watering prospect. (I am fortunate enough to have played in a friendly game at Deepdale, the home of Preston North End, during the eighties, made possible as the surface was artificial at the time).

So, the weeks passed by and the Burnley game began to loom large. Ollie gave us our instructions at our regular Monday morning session at the beginning of the week. This involved meeting up early at the Arena to get our kit on, then putting on our coats and trousers, and taking up our seats in various parts of the ground, to watch the first half hour of the game. With instructions to gather at the north-west tunnel, ten minutes before half-time, this was going to be a challenge for a bunch of old blokes, without maps and compasses and, due to the time, unable to navigate by the stars. However, with a couple of exceptions, we managed to get to where we needed to be, at the appointed time, to be led into the bowels of the stadium, so that we could remove our coats and trousers, revealing the football kit underneath – half of us in white Tigers Trust tee shirts, half in black.

When we were called into the tunnel that leads onto the pitch, I remember saying to one of the guys, that I felt a bit like one of Russell Crowe’s mates as they trotted out into the Coliseum in the film ‘Gladiator’!! Ollie told us to have a kickabout while the pitch was being marked out, and I did consider waving to the south stand, where my grandson and son-in-law were seated, but decided to remain low profile …… with my yellow day-glo trainers on!!

Soon, it was kick-off time and we were under the spotlight. I remember team-mate Tony suggesting to me to go up front, while he volunteered to take up the high energy role in the middle. I didn’t need any persuading, and I had also carefully avoided having the goalkeeper’s bib thrown at me (refer to the York tournament!!).

As for the game itself, it seemed to pass by very quickly, as ten minutes usually does. The possibility of scoring the first goal was not lost on me, nor was its significance, and soon the ball came to me from the left and I stretched out a leg, making reasonable contact propelling the ball goalwards. My arms began to go up in celebration, as I thought there was enough power in my deft touch to beat the opposing ‘keeper, but no, Dave Jackson made a fine save and my arms came down double quick as I hoped that no-one had noticed my premature celebration.

However, my disappointment was short-lived and a minute or two later I latched onto a pass and, from some distance, lashed a right-footer to the back of the net. My celebration was muted, although deep down I was dead chuffed. There was another decent chance that came my way, from which I only managed to get my socks and shorts wet and muddy, and near the end Derek scored a deserved equaliser which made the 1-1 result quite appropriate. Derek’s goal triggered a version of the Jimmy Bullard celebration at the Etihad, which itself had mimicked Phil Brown’s famous half-time rant at the same ground a year earlier. I had forgotten the plan when I scored, then missed the celebration following Derek’s goal, as I was welcoming Rory the Tiger onto the pitch as a substitute.

Then the final whistle sounded and we all shook hands and displayed the kind of sportsmanship that the fans would associate with mature, ‘well-rounded’ footballers. What did strike me during the game was the way the crowd became engaged with what was going on; hearing a few cheers and some applause was very heartening. As I came off the pitch I reflected on how I had played football on the same pitch as greats such as Dozy Altidore and U571 (German sub aka Nick Proschwitz) and I wished I could turn the clocks back about forty years.

When I returned to my seat in the south stand, I raised my bright yellow boots to my section; my grandson, Elliot, congratulated me on my long range goal but quickly reminded me that I had also missed two other chances, bringing me back down to earth with a bang!!

(Rob Milner – the First Player to Score a Goal at the KCOM Stadium in the Walking Football Format, February 2017)

Rob Milner

Photos from Walking Football Exhibition Match at Burnley game Saturday 25th February 2017