‘I’ve dreamed of playing football since I was 11 - now I can’
Women’s walking football is growing in popularity in Northants
By Natalie Bloomer
Sandra Riley, 56, grew up loving football. Her dad was an avid fan and if they weren’t watching it on TV, they were kicking a ball around a park. But as she got older Sandra says the opportunities to play the game she loved became far fewer.
“There just wasn’t anywhere around for young women to play. If I was lucky the guys down the local rec might let me join in but that was it.”
The years passed but Sandra’s passion for the sport remained the same. Then in 2018 she saw a feature on television about walking football. In many ways the game is similar to traditional football but running is not allowed, the ball must be played below head height and physical contact is kept to a minimum.
Walking football is becoming so popular that in 2016, just five years after the game first appeared in the UK, the FA announced it was introducing a rulebook to help teams wanting to play at a more competitive level.
Sandra, who lives in Hardingstone, was keen to get involved and started looking for local teams. She soon found them - but they were mostly for men.
“The first team I called seemed to think it wasn’t a suitable game for women. The next one was also a male team but they had one woman playing with them and said I’d be welcome to join,” she says.
“It just grew from there really, more women joined us and all of a sudden we had a proper team. I’ve dreamed of playing football since I was 11, now I can. I am in football boots doing what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Skip forward a few years and Northampton Town Ladies Walking Football Team now has 30 members. It is open to women aged between 35-70 but the majority of those playing are between 50-65. A 71-year-old woman was playing with them until recently but is now considering becoming a referee.
“Some women come for the exercise, some come for the social aspect but most are here because they love football but have never had the opportunity to play. There are so many more opportunities for girls to play football now but when we were growing up it just wasn’t possible.”
Sandra says the game can be hard to get used to at first because most people think of football as a fast moving game. But she says even at a much slower pace the women can still cover five miles going back and forth up the pitch.
“At first, it’s quite hard not to run. In traditional football you pass the ball to a space and the player you’re intending it for runs into that space to get it. You can’t do that in walking football, your brain thinks you can do more than your feet can actually do. It still gets very competitive though.”
Two members of the Northampton squad have been accepted to play for England (one in the over 40s and one in the over 60s team) and others are going for trials. The team is also putting together the first women’s walking football tournament in Northamptonshire. Currently the only other competition of its type is held in Preston and Sandra says they wanted to have something more local.
“There’s lots happening in the game in the north of the country and in London but not much here in the Midlands so we wanted to change that. We knew a team had got together in Kettering and so we spoke to Kettering Town to see if we could use their pitch.”
Kettering agreed and next month teams from Bedford, London and Hertfordshire will be competing against Northampton and Kettering at the tournament.
Walking football has given both older men and the women the opportunity to play a game they love. Previously, most players would think about stopping once they hit their late 30s or early 40s but as the FA’s website says, the new game means that no longer has to be the case:
“While all of us will remember the joy of kicking a ball around as a child, and many will have continued playing into adulthood, few are to be found still lacing up their boots by the time we reach 50.
“Walking football is changing that. Now, instead of older players becoming too slow to compete, football is slowing down to enable them to continue enjoying the sport they love. And its popularity is soaring.”
Sandra is thrilled with the progress her team is making, especially coming as it does after a difficult period during the pandemic. Like all sports teams, the women had to stop training during lockdown, something some of the women found especially hard.
“It was terrible. Some of our women live on their own and had to shield - they went from having three hours playing with the team every week to not seeing anyone. The first training session back was brilliant. Some of the team are very active but for some it is the only exercise they have.”
“This is more than just a sports club, we look out for each other.”
The Women’s Walking Football Festival is being held at Kettering Town Football Club on Saturday June 12th.
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