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The Walking Footballers Of West Ham

June 3, 2018
by Dick Hobbs

Contributing Writer & Criminologist Professor Dick Hobbs reports on the craze for walking football

Walking football may sound like a creation of Monty Python, but with over eleven hundred clubs it is currently the fastest growing sport in the country. Created in 2011, walking football is played on a five-a-side pitch, running is not allowed, the ball cannot go above head height and physical contact is kept to a minimum. The sport is geared primarily for the over-fifties, but many clubs also encourage the involvement of younger people, the unemployed, sufferers of mental illness, and those recovering from illness or injury.

Although people live longer these days, those over fifty are becoming less active. Consequently, walking football players are evangelical about the sport’s many health benefits including weight loss, improved cardiovascular fitness, as well as a reduction in the loneliness and depression that feature in the lives of too many older men. However, none of this would be remotely possible if it was not enormous fun. Walking football is a real sport with wide appeal and it is common to find people who have never played football before on the pitch alongside those who have not kicked a ball since their twenties or thirties, and even a number who have played at semi-professional level.

In order to explore this extraordinary new sport Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I travelled to a forgotten corner of the East End to meet the members of the West Ham United Walking Football Team. Flanders Field in East Ham was once known as the ‘Wembley’ of school sports, but changes to local government funding in the nineties resulted in neglect. The grass grew over four feet high and the changing pavilion fell victim to an arson attack. Flanders Field became strewn with needles and bottles, and the neighbourhood was plagued by burglaries.

Led by local pastor Dave Mann, the community pushed back and in 2002 they took responsibility for the nine acre site. Dave acquired a small grant of five thousand pounds to hire equipment and – when strimmers proved ineffective – he clinched a two-for-the-price-of-one deal on a couple of sit-on grass mowers. In total, the Bonny Downs Community Association secured over £1.3million funding and they have transformed this once-derelict site into an outstanding sporting facility with cricket nets, a multi-use games area, a club room, and football pitches.

The centrepiece is the Bobby Moore Sports Pavilion, named after the local hero who was scouted at Flanders Field. When the walking football club started three and a half years ago, it had just three or four players, but its twice weekly sessions now attract between twenty to thirty enthusiasts and, in order to accommodate to demand, an additional session has just started in West Ham. Supported by the West Ham United Foundation and by coach and walking-football-guru Mark Blythe, the club has now partnered with health, lifestyle and homeless organisations. Several players had been advised to attend walking football sessions by their doctors and everyone we spoke with confirmed its physical and mental benefits.


The most popular member of the club, voluntary worker Brian is forty-eight. ‘I go twice a week and I have made new friends he,’ he admitted. There was no hint of hesitation when I asked Brian what he liked best about walking football, ‘scoring’ he declared.


Doug is sixty-three years old and works as a caretaker. ‘I played a lot of football when I was younger, but gave it up and became overweight until a friend introduced me to walking football and I thought, “hang on I am not bad at this.”  Then last year, I was down here playing and I snapped my achilles tendon. At first they put me in a cast, but I couldn’t stand it, so I went back to the hospital and I was put in a walking boot. It was better though it still got me down and I became depressed. I was in a bad way, yet the boys were behind me – I got support from them. We have all have problems, but we leave them off the pitch’. The previous weekend Doug had been appointed captain for a tournament  in Margate. ‘It made me feel good,’ he revealed to me proudly.


Ken was a former marathon runner who has turned to walking at football fifty-four years old after suffering a stroke.


Watching youthful sixty-one-year-old Michael play, it is clear that he – in common with many walking footballers – was once a highly accomplished player of the original game.  ‘I have been coming here two years now and have never looked back,’ he confessed to me, ‘I used to play years ago, but this is a different game.  There is no heading and you can’t run. I had a bad accident and done my knee – it is held together with wire. I don’t smoke or drink – I keep active, focused and work hard’.


GPO worker Derek proudly wore the brightest pair of football boots. ‘I read about walking football in the Newham magazine and I have been coming for about eighteen months. I was sixty-four and hadn’t played football since my mid-twenties, but from the first time I played walking football it was like a drug, I love it. When you tell people you are playing walking football they laugh, but they should try it – playing competitively you need skills. It’s a fantastic game and it has really improved my social life too. In this respect, it is no different to when I was younger, it’s the same banter and I have made new friends.’


Civil Servant Abs is only forty-six and has been coming to walking football for several months. ‘My doctor suggested it as my family are prone to diabetes. I like it here, they are great people and I enjoy the social side and the tournaments. It is very hot today and I am fasting as it is Ramadan, but I am here because I want to be inspirational and show that you don’t have to stay indoors doing nothing, you can get out and exercise.’


At forty-nine, van driver Paul is one of the younger members of the West Ham walking football fraternity. He plays with a rare intensity and concentration, making tackles and passing the ball quickly and efficiently. ‘I have been coming here for three years and walking football is a critical part of my life. I suffer from severe depression which expresses itself  as anger and walking football is a big help. We were in Margate for a tournament last week and played really well. It was a great experience. These are nice guys, and if wasn’t for them and walking football I would be in a lot of trouble’.


Although currently injured, Pat turned up on his bike to support his mates. Sixty-three-year-old can driver Pat used to keep fit by alternating between driving his taxi in the winter and in the summer when business was poor, working as a lifeguard. ‘I have been coming to walking football for about eighteen months. I absolutely love it and now I am injured I really miss it. After my annual medical, the doctor got me onto it by way of the West Ham Foundation. All the blokes are a great laugh and the social side is really good. We were in a documentary for Brazilian television and they had us walking in and out of the tunnel for hours. We are in our sixties and, at the end of all this hanging about and filming the same thing over and over again, they wanted us to play a game. We were knackered!’


Sixty-year-old Edwin is a project worker who also does out voluntary work. ‘I have been coming to walking football for three years and it is great fun. I hadn’t played football for about fifteen years. Walking football is a nice game, it’s good exercise and I am definitely feeling younger. When I score a good goal, I go home and I think about it all day’.


Fifty-one-year-old painter and decorator Clement has been playing walking football for two years. He plays on the left side, scoring goals and covering defence. ‘I used to play ordinary football years ago over Wanstead Flats. But this is a nice game, it’s less physical and you get less injuries. You meet different people from all backgrounds. On Tuesdays, after the session we all have a chat about life in general. Last weekend, we went to Margate and finished second and then we went to St Georges and got to the semi-final. It’s a great thing’.

Dave Mann

Dave Mann is an uncompromising advocate for the walking football team but – perhaps more importantly – he says ‘I am passionate about diversity. In the walking football club, we have two Rastafarians, four Hindus, ten Muslims and the rest are jellied-eel-eating Cockneys.’

At  Flanders Field we were accompanied by Doug’s grandson nine-year-old Marley Mann who was there to support his granddad and appointed himself as Sarah Ainslie’s assistant for the day.

Steve, the West Ham walking football goalkeeper

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

You may like to read these other stories by Dick Hobbs

Len Hoffman, Sports Coach

Joe Baden & Open Book

Bobby Cummines, Not A Gangster

Sam Nichols Of Nichols & Clarke

Terry Jackson, Samaritan

7 Responses leave one →
  1. June 3, 2018

    Great idea! Valerie

  2. June 3, 2018

    Brilliant GA. My son runs an under nine football club. Grass roots. It’s good to know that they have over fifty years to stay in the game. Inspirational.

  3. Rob Hornsby permalink
    June 3, 2018

    A truly wonderful insight here from Dick Hobbs to the joys of walking football. If this doesn’t spur you on then the game is lost before it has even started. I will be looking to get going with this. However, I am in the NE of England….Do they allow mobility scooters in the rule-book?

  4. June 3, 2018

    Absolutely great, looks like fun. I had no idea anything like that existed. You’re a gold mine, G.A.

  5. Kirsti tebbutt permalink
    June 3, 2018

    Inspiring people. Good to hear the players’ stories and the importance to them of the game on their physical and mental well being.
    Good too to know of the energy and drive by individuals clearing and setting up the facility in the first place. Fantastic.

  6. EJ Wilkinson permalink
    June 3, 2018

    Inclusive and inspirational! Well done to all those who make this possible.

  7. Ann Wright permalink
    June 3, 2018

    You might not know that Walking Netball is proving to be just as popular, especially after the great success that England Netball had at the Commonwealth Games this year.

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