Veteran Indigenous referee John Hanley says Walking Football has given him “a new lease on life”.
At first, Hanley was skeptical of the low-impact, non-contact form of the game which began in England and has taken off in Queensland over the past two years.
“I’d heard about Walking Football, and it didn’t sound active or competitive,” said Hanley, 57. “Until you’re there, you don’t get a feel for it.”
But after completing Australia’s first Walking Football referee course in March, Hanley has fast become one of the sport’s greatest advocates.
“I had so much fun. Once I got a taste for it, I realised there is no other sport like it. With Walking Football, you can play from cradle to grave,” he said.
“You will struggle to play rugby league or AFL over the age of 50, but with soccer we’ve got Walking Football.”
Hanley began refereeing as a young teenager on the Gold Coast and has since presided over matches throughout Queensland and New South Wales.
During the 1980s, he won several awards for Gold Coast Rookie Referee of the Year, Young Referee of the Year and Senior Referee of the Year.
But he fell in love with the job because of the camaraderie within the referee community.
“Referees are inclusive people. In the football referee fraternity, we’ve got it all; there are people from all over the world,” he said. “I haven’t witnessed one bit of racism or bigotry in my 40-odd years of involvement in refereeing.”
In recent years, Hanley has also been on a journey to uncover more about his Indigenous heritage.
“My mother’s side has a history through Western Toowoomba up through Cherbourg and originally from Rockhampton,” he explained.
“I’ve spent thousands of hours trying to put all the pieces together. A lot of history has been buried and people are embarrassed about it. Like a lot of people, I’m still trying to figure out all the pieces.”
Hanley has been mentored by Uncle Desmond Sandy, one of the Traditional Owners and the Headman of the Yuggara people of the Chepara area.
When Uncle Desmond wasn’t available to give the Welcome of Country at the 2020 Festival of Football at Perry Park, Hanley stepped in.
“I’ve learnt a lot about Southeast Queensland through Uncle Desmond and I’m grateful for his sharing,” said Hanley.
“I was immensely proud to give the Acknowledgment of Country. I talked about Perry Park being a place where we all dreamt of playing at. That’s a spiritual homeplace.
“Sport and activities have always played a big part in Aboriginal culture. There were gatherings of different tribes of the Jagera people in Southeast Queensland where they would compete and trade and have ceremonies.
“These traditional ideas and activities are mimicked after 60,000 years in the sports that we see today.”
While Hanley acknowledges that his elite refereeing days are behind him, he hopes to pass on his knowledge and experience to young referees coming through the ranks.
“As a young referee, I couldn’t go to a game on the Gold Coast without one of the senior referees picking me up. We went to games as a team,” he said.
“I think it’s really important that referees aren’t isolated. People think refereeing is an individual thing, but it’s so important to work together with your assistants.”
Now an accredited Level 3 Walking Football Referee, Hanley is encouraging more people to try the new form of the game.
“I hung up my whistle a long time ago, because my body ain’t designed to run anymore,” he said. “But I can contribute to Walking Football, so that’s where my future is. Walking Football gets your heart going.”
To learn more about Walking Football, click here.