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Walking football: What is it and is it good for you?

BY Nick Quantrill

21st Sep 2022 Sport

Walking football: What is it and is it good for you?

A fairly new game, walking football is growing quickly in popularity, both for its health benefits and its social side. Nick Quantrill shares the story behind the sport

It’s certainly not unusual to see groups of footballers gathering at sports centres around the country, readying to kick a ball around, but look again and you’ll see that many of them are more mature than you first thought. Created as recently as 2011, and predominantly played by those aged over 50, walking football is a sport still in its infancy. But when the Walking Football Association surveyed its members in 2019, their findings reported back on 1,200 registered clubs and an estimated 40,000 regular participants. It’s a sport growing at great pace.  

North Ferriby Walking Football Club in East Yorkshire is one such example. “We started in 2015,” explains Mark Leighton, the team’s secretary. “I’m a natural administrator who gets involved in these kinds of roles and enjoys them. We started off with relatively low numbers and it’s increased over a period of time. The first week, we probably only had four or five players, but we soon started getting ten players and beyond. Now we have 42 registered players taking part over three separate sessions each week.” 

What is walking football?

Walking%20football.jpg

For the uninitiated, it’s football, but maybe not as you know it. The game certainly isn’t as slow as you might imagine.  

One foot has to remain on the ground at all times, so the ball has to be moved with accuracy, players having to find space to receive the pass. Often players are restricted to three touches of the ball before releasing it as a mechanism to cut down on any running.  

"The game certainly isn’t as slow as you might imagine"

The rules are further tweaked to ensure there’s minimal contact between players with no tackling from the side or from behind. 

For Mark, it’s about growing North Ferriby as a venue to play the game. “I’d like to get the club to 50 registered players across four sessions a week. That would be a landmark figure. It’s good for anyone who wants to keep fit, for both their health and their general well-being. Players can take walking football to any level they want to. We have an Over 60s team that features in the East Riding of Yorkshire League, and actually won it last year unbeaten. Some of those guys have played for the Walking Football Association England team too in the recent World Cup held in Italy.” 

What do the players think? 

Walking football camaraderie

Andy Fairburn is a regular at the sessions. Now in his early-seventies, Andy finds the game still has plenty to offer him.  

“I’ve been playing football since I was about 16, mainly Sunday League and then playing indoor five-a-side with work teams and then starting here. Getting older, your knees are knackered, your hips start to hurt, and I’ll know when it’s time to stop, but I’ve still got some time left to enjoy it. I am still competitive, though, and old habits die hard.”  

"What I’ve enjoyed most is the camaraderie and meeting new people"

It goes beyond kicking a football around for players like Andy. “What I’ve enjoyed most is the camaraderie and meeting new people. We’ve all become friends, something that was really important as we went through COVID and other personal issues. We talk about all kinds of things. There’s a serious football side if you want that and a friendship side. I’d rather stick to the friendly side of things. All the people I socialise with now through walking football, I’ve only known for the last four or five years, but it’s absolutely brilliant.” 

Will walking football catch on?

There’s work to be done to embed the game on a wider-basis. Several clubs take referrals from local health care providers, partnership work that could be increased to help those with disabilities and long-term illnesses access sessions.  

It’s also striking that 87 per cent of clubs surveyed reported back that less than 10 per cent of players are female. Anecdotally, it’s a situation that’s changing, maybe in-part due to the ongoing success of the Lionesses, but it needs to be accelerated.  

"There’s work to be done to embed the game on a wider-basis"

Socio-economic barriers also need breaking down. North Ferriby Walking Football Club operates on a pay-as-you-go subscription model and has secured sponsorship to reduce the cost burden, but not all clubs will be so fortunate. 

Walking football: A success story 

Football

Despite these barriers to progress, walking football is clearly a success story with much to be proud of. For many who thought football was finished for them as a participation sport due to fitness and age, it’s far from the case. It’s a sport played by those who’ve never kicked a ball before through to those skilled enough to play for their country, often on the same pitch.  

Friendship and mutual respect is the key, banter and laughs the glue that binds everyone together. The game may be growing faster than its participants are allowed to move, but it’s never too late to enjoy the thrill of kicking a ball around with like-minded people. 

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