FOR many people across Greater Manchester, it is fair to assume that hearing the word ‘football’ would stimulate thoughts of either Manchester United or Manchester City – or if not, it would at least stimulate thoughts of the global sport that we have all come to know.
Yet a new version of the beautiful game is starting to take shape across the North West, encouraging members of society that are 50 years old and over to dust off their football boots and get back onto the pitch one more time.
Walking football, the latest branch of the illustrious game, is a game geared towards making those aged above 50 more active and social, giving them the opportunity of a new lease of life.
In addition to the social advantages of the game, taking up walking football can be the catalyst for huge differences to people’s mental and physical health, and this is something that Daniel Pilling, Football Development Officer at the Manchester Football Association (FA), recognises.
He said: “Socially, it has helped to support those who are reclusive, widowed or recently retired and have a lot more spare time.
“In terms of health, it is an ideal activity to help reduce the physiological signs of ageing and improve the participant’s quality of life.”
Pilling draws on the case of Mick Brannigan, one of the very first to join the walking football programme in Greater Manchester, to show how beneficial the sport can be.
“Mick was able to challenge depression and panic attacks brought on by anxiety and agoraphobia through walking football after the passing of his partner five years previously.”
Another player, who wished to remain unnamed, also revealed that he lost over three stone in six months by attending the ALFA sport sessions in Salford.
Barry Woods, 59, from Eccles, has recently started attending the Salford sessions and said that it was “one of the wisest decisions” he has made in the last twenty years of his life.
“It’s a very enjoyable thing to take up, and it brings out that competitive side that has been locked away for so many years.
“The tournaments we play in are excellent days, with some good quality games played too – now it would be nice to lift a trophy one day.”
Walking football, in principle, is no different to the normal game; there are still two teams trying to score into each other’s goals to win a match. The difference comes in the restricted movement, which is an attempt to keep the game slow-paced and social for over 50s.
The rules state that no running is allowed on the pitch, with one foot required on the ground at all times, and the non-contact nature of the sport means that no tackling is permitted either.
— ALFA (@_ALFAsport) March 20, 2016
Pilling has been the driving force behind the walking football movement in the region in the last two years, and has overseen the recent growth in the game since being appointed as Development Officer back in 2013.
He said: “There were no walking football sessions in Greater Manchester two years ago. I tried to activate sessions in the middle of 2014, but unfortunately because of a lack of knowledge about what walking football actually was in the public, there wasn’t a lot of interest and all sessions were cancelled.”
During the latter part of 2014 however Barclays ran an advert involving a walking football group, and Pilling admits that things began to transpire from there.
“Suddenly, walking football came to life – Development Officers across the UK are eternally grateful.”
In addition to the Barclays advert that kick-started the walking football initiative, Manchester City Football Club released their own video in April last year to celebrate the club’s “City in the Community” initiative.
This short video put the spotlight on walking football, and showed City players Pablo Zabaleta and David Silva joining in a local session; it was this celebrity endorsement that caused a distinct rise in profile and popularity of the sport in the North West.
Barry and Jane Potter, a couple who started up their own walking football initiative in Worcester in May of last year, praised the sudden emergence of the sport.
They said: “It has been very rewarding, and the people that come seem to enjoy it.”
Greater Manchester is currently the largest provider of walking football sessions across the entire country, with over 25 centres across the region offering the chance to play weekly.
To start playing, visit one of the centres detailed below or visit this link for more information.