By Mike Backler
Barnet FC Walking Football Team are making an immeasurable impact on the community and its members, and creating a few internationals along the way.
There was a time when footballers of all levels hung up their boots in their mid-thirties and retired to the golf course or the pub to regale associates with tales of their glory days. That, of course, is still very much an option, but over the last ten years there has been an explosion of football being played beyond that which can only have a seismic effect on the health of the more seasoned population of the UK.
Participation in Vets Football is growing at a rate that County FAs and leagues are struggling to keep up with, and Walking Football is flourishing. None more so than at the Barnet FC Walking Football Team, part of The Hive Foundation. Seventy players turn up each and every Friday at The Hive in Barnet, a perfectly assembled multi-pitch centre, and compete across five pitches. And it is competitive. But more than that, it’s very, very inspiring.
Though the Barnet FC WFT is without doubt the sum of its parts, and he couldn’t do it without support, Shaun Sherrick is certainly its beating heart. Trying to pin the man down on a Friday afternoon is tough as he’s constantly being questioned about subs, injuries and which pitch players should be on.
On the pitch, they’ve had a great deal of success. They qualified for the EFL Cup at St George’s Park; their Over 60s are Middlesex FA Champions; their Over 50s are runners-up; their Over 65s are in the top four in the country; and their Over 70s are unbeaten. They’ve had visits from the Chinese Walking Football Team. They’ve played at the Etihad. They have international players in their ranks. But this isn’t the real driver for Shaun or even the most impressive thing about this club. It’s without question its impact on the community and its members. There is a purpose and a pathway for every single player. Whether it be to improve their life, their health or even to represent their country.
I’m thirty-six and I’m in the middle of a bit of a football rebirth myself. I’ve never fallen out of love with the game, but I had fallen out of love with playing it in my thirties. The shift to Vets Football has made me realise what I love about it, and that is quite simply playing with friends, making new ones and having the ball at my feet. You can do all this at The Hive. I’m quickly involved in a game, barking and receiving instructions, finding space, playing one-twos. Smiling. Managing your weight of pass is one of the most enjoyable aspects – just enough to pass the defender, but not too much to outstrip a walking centre-forward. It’s a real game of science.
Looking across the five pitches of activity, it’s clear to see that there may be a few football rebirths left to come for me. On my team in defence is Bob – he’s eighty-two. Calm, composed, a brilliant football brain protected by hair thicker than mine. The oldest player at The Hive is Sid, who’s eighty-five. If thinking about these guys placing their boots in their kitbags once a week doesn’t warm your heart, then you’re probably reading the wrong publication.
Shaun tells us more. “The body is eighty, the eyes are eighteen. We’re all friends here. We’ve been together five years. We all have a game and have a drink afterwards. If someone’s not well, we call them up. If people can’t play, they still come down, whether they wanna watch, ref or come for social.
“We split it up into Over 50s, Over 60s, Over 70s, so everybody gets a competitive match. Breaking it up means we can invite Over 70s teams. We’ve got players up to eighty-five years old! So we’ll arrange fixtures with other Over 70s teams – they’ll come here, have something to eat and we’ll make a day of it. Nobody just plays football and disappears.
“I’d never played any football before this at all. I started playing football at fifty years old. You’re playing for fun and to keep fit. It’s all about enjoyment. Sure, we’ve won leagues and got FA trophies and medals but since the pandemic we’ve raised £1000 for The Hive Foundation, and we worked over Christmas with Mesut Özil’s Warmer Winters Christmas Project where we helped deliver 10,000 meals. We got our cars, we loaded them up, we helped package stuff up and off we went. We helped raise £500 for Mind and just recently we held a Zoom Quiz and raised £600 for Harrow Bereavement Care. We understand how fortunate we are, at our age, to be playing the game we love. We are a community team. And as much as we want to win, our community means a lot.”
There’s a common theme with everyone we spoke to about Walking Football, and that’s initial hesitation. Is it for me? Shaun remembers that it wasn’t an instant success.
“We’re Barnet fans and there was an advert on TV for Barclays Digital Eagles and saw these old people playing Walking Football and we thought, what is that? And The Hive Foundation, the charity arm of Barnet FC, approached myself, Peter and Mike and said what about starting up a Walking Football team. We really had no idea what it was. We just looked up some rules. We put it up on Facebook, said come along. Three of us turned up! We tried a midweek; nobody turned up! We didn’t give up.
“We kept plugging away. Three turned into six, and then nine. And now we’re 110. Our sessions on a Friday are one of the biggest, if not the biggest in London. We’ve now set up on a Tuesday night and in the space of ten minutes, twenty-eight names. The thing about The Hive is that the facilities here lend itself. We’ve got a great group, we’re friends, we’ve worked together on it.”
And within that success have been many individual success stories. Whether on or off the pitch. Tom Moran now represents England Over 50s with the likes of ex-pros Alan Kennedy and Mike Milligan and has written a book called Walking Football: Improve Your Life.
“I started about four years ago. I played to a decent standard as a lad, but nothing special. Had a few trials at Watford and gave up when I was about thirty, really. I saw this advertised, Walking Football, and I don’t live too far from here and I thought, ‘I dunno, it don’t sound very exciting’. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s really important for your physical wellbeing and more importantly your mental wellbeing.
“We’ve got people from forty-five to eighty-five. It’s fantastic. A lot of the guys, it gets them out the house. They sort of visualise just standing at home looking out the window and it’s so true. There’s a big social aspect to it. And there’s a competitive element. Lots of friendlies. You come up against tough teams. It’s meant to be non-contact or minimal-contact but when you come up against guys that have played all their life, it’s in their blood. It can get a bit, y’know, but everyone’s a bit older so they’re more respectful. It’s a fantastic game. If you let the ball do the work, you can’t go dribbling up the wing. Move it, give and go.
“I was lucky enough to get nominated by our manager for England trials in Cirencester and I managed to get through into a squad of twenty. All fantastic players. The talking, the movement, it’s a different level. Everybody sees that you can play for your country now and all the good players want that opportunity. They have trials three times a year and they have spotters around as well. It’s probably not gonna be a long career because there’s always going to be someone that’s going to take your place, getting older and that. The opportunity is there for anyone over fifty. We’ve got two guys that have just been picked by the England Over 70s, which is fantastic.
“It’s like getting in the playground again, meeting your friends and playing football. The social side is probably the most important thing.”
Reshad Sufraz is fifty-seven and joined up three weeks ago. It’s already made a considerable impact on him.
“I used to run and play in a five-a-side league for about twenty years. Started off as a kickabout in Regent’s Park but moved to Powerleague Barnet. I gave it up in 2012 and since then I have put on twenty kilos and a couple of months ago I was diagnosed with diabetes.
“I’d been thinking about Walking Football for a while and that kind of tipped me over the edge to come and try it out and see what it’s like, and I really loved it. The first week after the game I was on such a high. Good for your mental, physical and social health. Great to have a kickabout and when the weather is like this, great venue, good guys.
“When I first looked at it I thought this isn’t for me, because of the walking element, then a few years went by and I realised this is for me, because of the walking element.”
Reshad is a Consultant Psychiatrist so although he knows a fair bit about mental health, even he wasn’t prepared for the lift it has given him.
“It’s one thing knowing about mental health; it’s another experiencing it. Before I got diagnosed with diabetes I was feeling quite drained, a bit down, lethargic, and the boost that improving my physical health has had on me is palpable. I’d recommend it to anyone.”
Reshad is going to be here tomorrow because his little five-year-old girl is playing in a Barnet Under 5s game. He’s got the bug back and it’s beautiful to see.
So for a club that has already achieved so much, both on and off the pitch, in some of the most trying times for grassroots football and mental health, what is Shaun most proud of?
“Setting up the Over 70s is probably the thing I’m proudest of. To see eighty-five-year-olds playing football with that glint in their eye, to see them giving a bit of that (elbow) and back here for chip butties, that was emotional millionaire time.”
“To be nominated in the London Sports Awards at Guildhall was special. It’s the most prestigious sports awards and we were nominated for the Community Impact Award. A fantastic event. We can never win these things. We’re sitting next to the Black Prince Trust and Care In The Community, these incredible organisations, and then there’s Barnet FC Walking Football Team. It’s just great to get the recognition.”
And the recognition is fully deserved. A couple of hours knocking the ball about and grabbing a drink with the guys will not only restore someone’s faith in football and its potential impact, but it will also give anyone a welcome boost. So what’s next for the all-conquering Barnet FC Walking Football Team? Shaun’s not resting on his laurels.
“Off the pitch, to continue our community work. One of our guys has just qualified as a counsellor, so we’ll be offering that. We’ve just started the Barnet FC WFT cycle group. And we’ve set up a walking group. Fourteen of us have already joined up and went on a thirteen-mile walk. The cyclists go off for thirty miles into Hertfordshire and have a great time.
“We’re not just a Walking Football team, we’re a family.”