This new type of football is the fastest growing sport in the UK – and it’s mostly played by OAPs
Billy Rotherham loved watching his grandson play football, but it also made him miss the camaraderie and fun of his own playing days.
Approaching 70, he thought his chances of ever being part of a football team again were long gone.
But now, at 73, he is back on the pitch every week, playing in tournaments, and enjoying friendship and laughter with more than 100 members of his football club.
It’s all thanks to a relatively new sport called Walking Football. As the name suggests, it’s football where running is banned, making it low-impact and with little risk of injury.
It means that thousands of older men – and increasing numbers of women – are now rediscovering the joys of the game at a more leisurely pace, keeping fit and making new friendships.
Since launching just seven years ago, walking football has become the fastest growing sport in the UK thanks to volunteers running clubs and football sessions.
It is growing fastest among the over-70s.
Billy plays for the Wigan Walkers. “I absolutely love it,” said Billy, a former mayor of Wigan. “It’s like being young again and it’s been brilliant for getting me fit.
There’s absolutely nothing like being out there again knocking the ball around with the lads. And it’s meant new friends too – we like to meet up for a curry every so often and have a banter.”
He joined the club four years ago, and added: “I was watching my grandson play and felt a bit envious of him and all the camaraderie of the lads because I used to play.
“When I heard about walking football, I thought that sounded great. Then I was diagnosed with a heart murmur and had to go for a triple heart bypass operation.
For some that might have been it but I was determined to get back in it and was back on the pitch within six weeks. I actually think the sport helped my recovery.”
There is already overwhelming evidence of the sport benefiting both physical as well as mental health.
Such has been the interest that there are now more than 1,200 volunteer-run clubs participating with an estimated 40,000 players.
There are leagues and tournaments held across the country while the first ever walking football international, when England took on Italy, was held at the Amex Stadium, home of Premier League team Brighton, in May.
The Wigan Walkers have just launched a fresh drive aimed at the over-70s.
They are now looking to recruit for a women’s team too.
The hardest part about the game is the actual not running part. Paul Carr, chief executive of the Walking Football Association says: “It’s the biggest challenge, your instinct is to run. But you have to train your mindset to walk with the ball. If you do run, you face giving a free kick to the other team.”
Paul, 63, added: “It’s fantastic how the game has captured the imagination. I got involved four years ago myself, playing at Wigan too, and quickly caught the bug.
It really inspired me how it was making such a difference and I decided I wanted to help with the structure and became involved in the set up of a National Governing Body.
“It suits older players as there is far less chance of injury compared to regular football. But it’s not just an older version of football.
There is strong, growing evidence of the considerable social, mental and physical health benefits of playing walking football.
Everyone who plays loves it.”