How an amateur club in Norwich is inspiring older generations to get out and play
If you head to a little-known sports centre on the outskirts of Norwich on a Monday or Friday morning, you will be met by a sight that is both surprising and inspiring. As Britain emerges from a pandemic that had a devastating impact on amateur sport, you will find a group of more than 50 players across four pitches indulging in one of the fastest-growing sports in the UK: walking football.
The basic idea is simple. Past a certain age, mobility is limited for many, so why not level the playing field and ban running altogether? This subtle innovation has seen thousands of people return to playing a sport most of them had long since abandoned, in body if not in spirit.
Since its inception in 2011, walking football has spread like wildfire. At the time of writing, there are 1,500 walking football clubs and more than 60,000 participants in the UK, with official associations in upwards of 50 countries.
To find out more about what makes this senior pastime so popular, Jonathan Bennett pays a visit to Soca Seniors, the 2022 Walking Football Club of the Year.
At the Football Development Centre at Bowthorpe, the home of Soca Seniors (a local take on Boca Juniors), it’s a dreary, cold Monday morning in March. Rain may be forecast but it doesn’t affect the turnout or dampen the enthusiasm.
The session lasts for a full two hours, with teams selected via an app. “We rate the players around four times a year, which helps allow for injuries and changes in form,” explains Chair Neville Townsend. The app then uses the ratings to creates eight teams, split into two categories – fast and slow-paced.
In fact, it must be said that play is surprisingly rapid at times. You might even spot the odd half-sprint, unnoticed or at least unpenalised by the referees, resplendent in pink. “Refereeing here is actually much harder than in regular football,” says Neville, “On top of everything else, you always have to be looking to see if people are running, and it’s very tricky to spot”.
Another challenge is making sure participants are fit to play, and Neville stresses the importance of responsibility in senior sport: “We really take people’s health seriously – everybody is required to have a thorough medical examination, and many of our members have undergone first-aid training”.
Other than being medically fit to play, however, there are no other barriers to entry, and the club’s competitive but welcoming and friendly spirit is clear to see. “We have grown to around 135 players, all aged 50 and upwards,” explains IT expert Gary Cockaday, who built the club’s website and runs the social media platforms.
In 2022, not only were Soca Seniors the over-70s national champions and over-65s runners-up, they also provided nine national players. It is no surprise, therefore, that the club was recognised by the Walking Football Association (WFA) for its achievements in January of this year.
“The club is also really active in general. There are various social events with our families, golf games, monthly lunches,” adds Gary. “We have sent teams to Spain and France, and have even raised quite a bit of money for various charities, including Prostrate Cancer UK and East Anglian Children’s Hospice.”
Despite their successes, however, both Gary and Neville insist that it is the camaraderie and their love of the game that keeps the club going.
As Neville explains, “I personally love playing and look forward to it each and every week. It definitely helps with my mental health. At the moment I’m out injured and miss playing like hell. Fingers crossed I will be back soon.”
Gary is just as enthusiastic: “Walking football is very addictive. It’s a chance to play the game we love, albeit at a slower pace. We can improve our fitness and also socialise, of course, something which becomes ever more important as you age.”
As the two-hour session draws to a close, the future of walking football and Soca Seniors looks bright from where we are standing, and Neville cannot help but agree.
“Norwich Soca Seniors has grown far beyond our expectations over the past 18 months, and continues to do so each month as new members arrive. We are even looking into setting up a women’s team. My guess is that we should be up to six pitches on a regular basis within a year. The biggest problem is that pretty soon we are going to run out of space.”
On that positive note, everyone agrees that it’s high time for a good cuppa, a plate of biscuits and a bit of cake in the clubhouse.
For more about Soca Seniors, check out their excellent website. This year’s WFA Cup kicks off in April. To find out more about the competition and walking football in general, see the sport’s official website, where you will also find a list of clubs around the UK. For more on the European game, Jonathan will soon be visiting the walking footballers of Ferencváros in Budapest.