Cheshunt Walking FC are championing causes, working hard, winning tournaments. And a pioneer for women’s walking football.
By Lucy Mertekis
Five years ago, Jonathon Sands was sitting at home when a Barclays Bank advert came on the television. You might remember the advert; a group of men aged fifty-plus are playing Walking Football and having a lovely time of it. The sport piqued his interest – Jonathon was a keen goalkeeper, looking to get into Vets football – so, fast-forward a couple of years, he decided to form his own local Walking Football team in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. Jonathon is now the talismanic Chairman of Cheshunt Walking Football Club, which comprises six men’s teams (for players between the ages of fifty and seventy-plus) and two sparkling new women’s teams. He has also recently become the England Over 40s Women’s team coach for the Walking Football Association. Jonathon doesn’t do things by halves.
As is often the way in grassroots football, setting up the club at the beginning wasn’t a walk in the park. “It was a struggle,” Jonathon recalls. “We tried to get people to come down for many months, and we had some nights where it felt like there were only three men and a dog coming along. We didn’t even play in the proper goals, we had little kiddie goals! But I persisted, and we went from having twenty or thirty people three years ago to now having 157 members, forty-seven of whom are women.”
The rise of the club can be attributed to the hard work and dogged determination of Jonathon to “do things the right way”. From the off, Jonathon was the man at the helm, in more ways than one: “I was the chairman, the social secretary, the treasurer, the bottle washer, the tea maker, the sandwich maker”. The club is now affiliated to Cheshunt FC, playing predominantly in the Isthmian League Premier, and Jonathon is joined by a great committee of equally hardworking Walking Football fanatics who share his passion for the game.
Club Secretary and Over 70s player-manager Mick Malone recalls how he came to be involved in the club: “A couple of my pals had joined Cheshunt, enjoyed it immensely, and encouraged me to attend. I was converted immediately. The organisation of our training sessions and competitive tournaments has always been first class and my fellow club members, male and female, are a fantastic bunch.”
Inspired by the mighty Shaun Sherrick and the Barnet Walking Football Club (who were featured in Issue 3 of The Grassroots Post), Jonathon aimed “to model our club on what they did” by encouraging people to come along to sessions whatever their ability, allowing people to mix, to socialise, and to play the game for no reason other than the sheer enjoyment of it. This is the beauty of Walking Football: it improves people’s physical and mental health, no matter whether they are returning to football after many years away, aiming to become more active after illness or injury, or trying out a sport for the first time in their lives. “We get some people who are still unsure, so I say, don’t worry, come along, try it out, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it,” says Jonathon.
It is this warm and nurturing atmosphere that keeps the players returning each week. “We’ve got people coming all the way from Norwich, Northampton, Brighton, London, to play for our club, because they like the way we’ve set up. We make it so that we encourage people. Because of that, everybody feels that they’re part of something special.”
Alongside the camaraderie is a keen desire on the part of all players and staff to improve their local community. As Mick Malone observes, “Cheshunt are a total community club. Members, like myself, have had knee or hip replacements and heart surgery amongst some of the ailments which they have overcome, and the fantastic 4G surface that we play on is very forgiving. In my opinion, there is no better way to enjoy yourself and keep fit at the same time.” Included on Jonathon’s list of plans for the next few months are various charity drives to give back to the Cheshunt community, as well as a search for more local organisations to sponsor the teams.
This sense of harmony was tested when the pandemic hit. Forced to shut down, with leagues and training sessions abandoned, Jonathon kept in touch with the whole team and made himself available to anyone in need. Then, devastating news came through: Arthur Cunningham, beloved member of the Over 70s team who had just been called up to the England Over 70s squad, sadly died of Covid at the beginning of the pandemic. You only have to glance at the Cheshunt WFC website to see the high esteem Arthur was held in. He was, by all accounts, a true gentleman, and a much loved member of the Cheshunt family.
This difficult time brought the team members closer than ever, and so, never one to rest on his laurels, Jonathon embarked upon a new chapter for Cheshunt WFC. After a proactive push on social media and through word of mouth, in September 2020 a new women’s team was formed: Cheshunt Ladies Walking Football Club, playing in the Thames Valley League. At the first session, only four women turned up, but by May 2021 they had more than forty women regularly taking part in two different teams – including a few England internationals. While competitive Walking Football games are generally reserved for women aged forty-plus, Cheshunt’s training sessions include women in their twenties and thirties as well, ensuring that no one is left out or turned away.
The women’s team has been managed by England Over 40s international captain Kathryn Critchell since its inception. Kathryn’s attitude to the club is very much the same as Jonathon’s. “It’s lovely how friendly everyone is, how welcoming. We’re a family team, and we wanted to make sure we have that feel-good ethos within the team,” Kathryn explains. “It’s as much about the social side of things as it is about the football. Walking Football is a very inclusive sport, and Cheshunt particularly is a very inclusive side. I think Cheshunt are now one of the strongest women’s teams in the South – certainly the biggest and quickest-developing team.”
“We have found that the women are so accommodating – they’re extremely adaptable and tolerant,” notes Jonathon. “They really are a collective and they encourage everybody.” This spirit of togetherness, instigated by Jonathon and Kathryn, has paid dividends in their matches, too. “They’ve won four tournaments out of the last five, and the one they didn’t win they lost in the final 1-0, which was brilliant because they were playing Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Chelsea … it was just an amazing situation. They didn’t lose a game and didn’t concede a goal until the final.” The abundance of England internationals within the team, too, is a great testament to Kathryn’s mentoring and support, and demonstrates how the club has developed its players over the last few months.
So, with Cheshunt going from strength to strength, what does Jonathon hope to achieve in the next year? “I’d like to see more aspects of mental health and disability being involved in the club,” he explains. “I’d like to bring in a lower age group and develop this over the next year so that people can feel that regardless of their abilities, they can participate in the game with a smile on their faces.”
There’s something special happening in Cheshunt, alright. Follow them on the socials, get yourself down to some matches and see for yourself what this brilliant group of people have in store this season.