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What’s it like to be a footballer in your 60s?
Mike Thompson shares his story.
WRITTEN BY: MALLY HARVEY PHOTOGRAPHY: JONATHAN TURNER
DEC/JAN 2022/23 ISSUE
As we age, it’s tempting to become less physically active. Joints seize up, old injuries resurface and we make involuntary noise when we get up from chairs. Team sports can be seen as a young person’s game, not for people over 60. However, there are ways to be involved with competitive sports at any age. Over the next few months we will be featuring the stories of some active people who refused to take aging lying down.
Like many young boys, Mike Thompson always wanted to become a footballer. When he was injured as a young man, he thought his athletic dreams were over. However, after 50 years, Mike returned to the sport and now he runs a team of his own. Mike shares his story of how he turned disappointment into hope and explains how he got involved in a new sport specifically for older people: Walking Football.
What is your first memory of playing football?
I was about 6 and I remember kicking a football – I haven’t stopped kicking a ball about since then. The junior school I was at had a football team, for year 3s and 4s. Year 4 was when you went up to high school, so that was my first time playing competitive football. I managed to get in the school football team. I remember scoring my first goal, it was a scramble but I kicked the ball over the line. That was when I got the bug. I worked hard trying to be a professional footballer. The way of finding my way in to get a trial was difficult, because I hadn’t played for Bradford or Yorkshire Boys or England Boys.Whenever I was asked the question, “What do you want to do when you leave school?” my answer was always, “I want to be a footballer!” But there didn’t seem to be any means of getting there. However, my dad knew one of the gatekeepers at Bradford City; this man called Mr. Petrie had a word with someone at the club about getting me a trial. I was 17 years old by then He got me in! It was very exciting. I turned up as one of many other trialists - only 4 people were to be selected. At the end of the evening, the chosen people would go to train at Bradford City. I was one of the chosen 4! It was amazing because there was no other way in. The sad thing was that when the manager called my name, my dad went up to him and said, “What are you picking on Mike for, he’s not anywhere near good enough!” The manager said, “If Mike wants to come down we want to see him.”I turned up (obviously) on Tuesdays and Thursdays when training sessions were on and I kept training. The idea was to train for a year - if we were good enough, we would be kept on. Otherwise you would be discarded. But at the end of the first year I wasn’t discarded. Then there were more trials for the juniors. When the decision came, I seemed to be just sitting on the grass waiting. Others were given positions and I just waited. Then I got my moment. One of the coaches said, “We need someone who plays Left Back.” I immediately stood up and said, “I’ll do it!” The coach said, “You’ll play anywhere to get a game, won’t you Mike?” I said, “Yes - just put me on the field. Let me show you what I can do.” He said he would put me on for half an hour to see how I performed. I told him, “If you put me on, you won’t take me off.” I went on to the field. I was going to go for it. I charged up and down the pitch. I was putting balls across from attackers, I was defending with the goalkeeper, and I was the find of the night. I was then in the team as a left back, even though I was right footed and a forward. I was putting that shirt on.
But then you got injured, is that right?
It was about 9 games into the season for the Under 17s and we were playing Sunderland. I went to tackle for the ball. One of their players dislocated my ankle and broke my tibia and fibula all at the same time. Bradford City did their very best for me: they got a surgeon who put my ankle back to where it should be. But after a year’s treatment and rehabilitation, they told me I didn’t have the same movement in my right ankle as I had in my left. They decided I couldn’t play professional football. So that was the end of my footballing career. I played for amateur teams up until I was 35 when our daughter was born when I gave up. I did a bit of Five-a-Side but not much else was available then.
How did you get involved in Walking Football?
The working years kicked in, but I was never happy. I only ever wanted to be a footballer. I should have been a footballer. I had over 31 jobs in my working life; I was driving instructor, I worked in the civil service. I yoyoed between jobs. I’d get fed up with them and go and work somewhere else. Some jobs lasted a week, some much longer. The bottom line was that nothing could compare with being a footballer and what had I lost.
When I got to 60, my wife Helen and I decided to go on the holiday of a lifetime - to Australia to see my cousins. They were 5 or so years younger than me. I discovered they were playing what they called “Open Age” football. So when we came home, I wanted to play football again. There didn’t seem to be any Open Age football or anything like it here in the UK. But there was something called “Walking Football”. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than “walking” football! Walking wasn’t competitive! If I was going to play football I wanted to compete, to win things. I thought that was no good. But there wasn’t anything else, so I thought I would give it a try. There were 2 clubs doing Walking Football and when I enquired one answered straight away - I never got a reply from the other one. I thought I would go down and try it. I reckoned I would be back in 10 minutes. It couldn’t possibly be what I want. But to my surprise it has filled the gap. We have social sessions so that people who aren’t really footballers come down and see others, talk to people, just pass the ball: it’s a social group.
What are the benefits, healthwise?
It’s good for the mind and for the body. Its exercise. And there is the competitive side. This is what I really enjoy. But there is a “helping others” side which confirms how I like to be.
And you run a team now?
The competitive side of Walking Football has been with me now for 7 years. I’ve won lots of trophies, I’ve even represented Bradford City in what’s called the EFL competitions. The English Football League put it out to all the clubs, Bradford City included. But they don’t have a walking football team. So I got 26 walking footballers out on Bradford City’s pitch for a half-time demonstration at one of their games. I made sure I had my own little moment. I played in the team nearest the Kop, which is where the loudest supporters are. I dribbled up the field and I passed it to a guy who back heeled it into the net - the crowd were cheering! I had my Wakefield football shirt on and I pulled it up and underneath was my Bradford City Football shirt! I waved it at the crowd of 17,000: they went wild! I never imagined that I would be on that pitch at this age in my life, hearing that roar.
It’s amazing that now I can do something I love. And helping others is so fulfilling. One of the guys who has Parkinson’s - he smiles at every match. That is wonderful. I kept asking him if he was going to come; he just kept saying he didn’t want to let me down, it depended how he would feel on the day. I wanted him to come because I knew he would enjoy it, but I understood his reluctance. In the end he came and he loved it. That will stay with me.
Walking Football has been restructured so that people don’t get injured. It’s a free kick if the ball goes above head height, which is how it should be because the players are older and they don’t want to get injured. Its inclusive because as people get older, they are not as physically able. But they can play walking football.
What does Walking Football do for you?
I thought I had lost everything when I was injured, but Walking Football is inclusive for people, even those with difficulties. It’s good for physical as well as mental health and there is a lot of emotional support. I have made so many friends through walking football. I have gained so much from it at this time in my life which I could never have envisioned 50 years ago. It reaches the soul. Football is something I thought I had lost. Football was my dream and to get it back at this stage in my life is amazing. It fulfils so many areas in my life. I socialize with the people in our team but competitors as well. Unfortunately, there are teams who want to win at all costs. We go out to win but not at all costs. We don’t push people over! We are playing the game in the right way, using our skills - not brute force. We have beaten teams who were brutal and, although it took a few matches, we did it. Just by being ourselves and that’s a proper victory. Our strategy is we go to compete. We play twice a week and then there are competitions. The emotional support of Walking Football is amazing, not only for what it gives me but for what it has done for others. The emotion and satisfaction that I get out of playing and seeing my contemporaries enjoying the game is something I lost 50 years ago. I never thought I would get back, but I have all these years later. Football was my dream, my everything. And now I've got it back.
Football Over Fifty: The health benefits of the Beautiful Game
The average age of England’s World Cup Squad for the 2022 competition is just 26. Most footballers retire in their 30s. Christiano Ronaldo was seen as the old man of Manchester United – and he’s only 37. The oldest player ever to complete in a World Cup was Essam El-Hadary, who was Egypt’s goalie in 2018. He was 45! At the time Essam said, “I don’t know what the word impossible means.” A positive message, but if you’re in your 50s, 60s or 70s, it’s probable that your dreams of playing for England are behind you.
So a kickabout in the park with the grandchildren might be the best option. But what if you want to compete? As we age, we find it hard to keep up with younger players. Some older people carry on playing 5-a-side into their 50s and 60s. But inevitably, age catches up with us. This is where Walking Football comes in. Walking Football has been going since the 1930s – the first match was apparently between railway workers in Derby and Crewe. However, it was only a few years ago that Walking Football was developed into a competitive sport. John Croot of Chesterfield FC was the first to realise the potential. “I thought of Walking Football as a means of engaging with older people and asked my team to research it,” says John. “Amazingly we could find no evidence of it being played so set about establishing the concept afresh. This led to us passing the rules on to many fellow clubs and organisations.”
Walking Football can offer many health benefits. Players reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. The sport can also improve blood pressure, postural balance, blood sugar levels and bone density; and lower cholesterol and improve resting heart rate. It also has mental health benefits: players often find that being part of a team can make them feel good. It offers a sense of purpose and belonging that other fitness and exercise regimes can’t. Being in a team brings you into a community of similarly aged people – and gives you a reason to keep active.
“Football is close to a miracle cure for some,” say Magni Mohr and Peter Krustrup, sports scientists who have researched the sport’s health impact for older people. As well as the benefits listed above, the professors believe the sport can stave off diabetes. One study has found that a 70-year-old who regularly plays football has the bone-strength of an untrained 25-year-old! All the more reason to try it. Perhaps your dreams of World Cup victory aren’t quite so far-fetched…
Walking Football in Yorkshire
Mike Thompson is part of Wakefield Wanderers Football Club. The team meet at Wakefield Football Centre and sessions are run Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons and Tuesday evenings.
Contact: Niall O’ Donnell on 01924 870403 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Leeds has its own Walking Football teams and sessions. Please contact Chris at 07971 630231
Find your local club at https://thewfa.co.uk
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