'You’ll Never Walk Alone’: A Study of Walking Football 
Project Report 
OCTOBER 2022 
Dr Gareth Thomas 
Cardiff University School of Social Sciences 

Project Report 

Introduction 
Between July 2022 and October 2022, I undertook 65 interviews with people who play walking football in the UK. In this report, I summarise some of my provisional findings. I intend to publish findings in journals and other publication outlets over the next few years. 
I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who took part in my project. I am very grateful and hope you enjoyed talking with me about your experiences. 
 
Thanks again. I hope you continue to enjoy playing the beautiful game! 

Playing walking football 

Participants were asked what it feels like to play walking football. Every person described their participation in positive terms. Many cited the ‘joy’ of being able to play football, and especially so at an older age. For some participants, playing walking football constituted a continuation of previous participation in running football (e.g. “I’ve extended my career!”), whilst others – and particularly women – said walking football provided an opportunity to meaningfully play football for the first time (since they were often not allowed to play when they were younger). 
Several participants described how playing walking football allowed them to “de- stress”. Many others said it gave them an outlet to “relive my youth” in particular ways, though not all participants felt this. Other participants described positive embodied sensations associated with playing football again. 

Social connection 

A major benefit cited for participation in walking football was developing social connections and relationships. Participants said that they built relationships not just during the games, but also before and afterwards (e.g. tea and coffee; social events [e.g. Christmas parties, quizzes, and meals]). Many participants used terms like ‘camaraderie’ and ‘bantering’ to describe what their involvement in walking football entails. 
The importance of developing friendships was underlined by participants when referring to retirement and/or losing a partner, i.e., where people may lose social contacts and, as such, seek new relationships. Many participants also believed that their participation in walking football offered a ‘shared purpose’, a sense of ‘community’ and ‘belonging’, and a new means for developing personal networks. This included meeting people who they would not have usually come across (e.g. in their working lives). 
 
Several participants identified how their team had fostered a culture of looking out for each other. This was particularly the case since many players had mobility and/or other health conditions. This translated to matches, where participants – for example – avoid tackling certain players (e.g. people who were perceived as much older) and would make ‘allowances’ for others (e.g. avoiding switching ends at half-time for players with dementia). But this also happened off the pitch, with participants highlighting the importance of keeping tabs on people if they had not attended football for a period of time. Social media/WhatsApp were vital for this function, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic ‘lockdowns’. 

Pain and discomfort 

Whilst some participants said that their physical condition prevented any serious feelings of pain and discomfort, others felt that it was part-and-parcel of playing walking football as they grew older. Nonetheless, this rarely, if ever, acted as a deterrent for participants. Instead, pains and aches were regularly celebrated as an indicator of exercise and hard work. Whilst some referred to pains and aches as a “badge of honour”, others claimed that they provided a common language between players. Nonetheless, many participants still worried about the prospect of injury and had concerns that this would mark the end of their involvement. 
 
Participants discussed their experiences of physical discomfort and soreness by also recognising walking football as a strenuous activity. Many participants felt that others did not take walking football seriously since it was perceived to be a leisurely and torpid pursuit. They lamented this perception and felt that walking football was the wrong name for such an activity (and how it constituted, in some ways, a misnomer since it often involved what others might perceive as running). 

Competitiveness 

Many participants in the study made a distinction between ‘competitive’ and ‘less competitive’ walking football. For some people they disliked the competitive side of walking football, choosing to avoid tournaments and instead opting for a more ‘social’ and relaxed environment. For others, competitiveness was an attraction to, and a main reason for continuing to participate in, walking football. A number of participants associated this with age; they believed that the games were more competitive (and physical) among younger players compared to older players. Yet, a large number of participants asserted that walking football is competitive among all age groups and that it is simply taken ‘too far’ by some players. 
 
The tension between competitive and non-competitive walking football was often managed in two ways: 1) establishing different teams on this basis; 2) informing new players what ‘type’ of team they are / would be part of. Some participants described having to establish a delicate balance between ensuring a competitive element without dissuading people from playing. Rules, such as no tackling and limited physical contact, were carefully followed according to a large number of players. Nonetheless, many participants believed that the rules were commonly contestable and subject to interpretation (e.g. what counts as walking / running). 

Ageing stereotypes 

Many participants talked in ways – e.g. of being active and healthy – that defied representations and stereotypes of older people as frail, as dependent and as in decline (Centre for Ageing Better 2015). Ageing was only discussed in relation to the possibility, and fear, of not being able to play in the future. Participants spoke about their joy, and surprise in many cases, about playing football at their age. 

Inclusive 

Participants overwhelmingly said that walking football is an inclusive sport. The belief commonly stemmed from a belief that older people, disabled people and people with limited mobility, and people recovering from injury can play walking football. Some players identified how their own team had made conscious efforts to widen access with respect to race, gender, and disability. Many participants also cited incidents where they and their team had been particularly welcoming and accommodating to a player (e.g. if they were new; if they had mobility issues). 
 
However, there were instances described by a small number of participants that would contradict this perception of inclusivity. Whilst some players recognised a lack of racially minoritized players at their clubs (although many felt this reflected the demographics of their local area), others believe that the competitive nature of walking football meant a number of players were explicitly overlooked during matches (e.g. the ball would not be passed to them) and/or when teams entered competitive tournaments (i.e. when there is a strong emphasis on winning rather than participation). Whilst some women who played walking football felt walking football was an ‘equaliser’ and that their gender identity became inconsequential during matches and thereafter, other women describe incidents where they were openly ignored or targeted during games. There are some risks, then, that certain players are disregarded and/or deterred from further participation. 
 
the demographics of their local area), others believe that the competitive nature of walking football meant a number of players were explicitly overlooked during matches (e.g. the ball would not be passed to them) and/or when teams entered competitive tournaments (i.e. when there is a strong emphasis on winning rather than participation). Whilst some women who played walking football felt walking football was an ‘equaliser’ and that their gender identity became inconsequential during matches and thereafter, other women describe incidents where they were openly ignored or targeted during games. There are some risks, then, that certain players are disregarded and/or deterred from further participation. 

Identity 

A very small number of participants played walking football only to maintain their fitness and because they enjoyed football. Many others claimed that participation went deeper than this; walking football often became part of how they perceived and defined themselves. They described how walking football had given them a ‘new lease of life’, how it was a key part of their weekly routine, and how it had opened up new friendships and opportunities for them. A number of participants said that even if they could no longer play (e.g. due to injury), they would still like to be involved in their club in some capacity. Walking football was described as providing a grounding and as a key part of their identity. 
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