In February 2015, Niyah Campbell was studying for a master’s degree in health psychology at Aston University in Birmingham. His supervisor suggested that, for his research project, he might like to carry out a study into whether walking football – which plays the game at a slower pace – made sport accessible for older adults. He was intrigued. Campbell coached football as a teenager, still plays up to three times a week in a local league, and is a Birmingham City supporter.
Campbell recruited 20 adults for the study, all aged 60 or above, and arranged for weekly sessions on Thursday evenings at a five-a-side-pitch on the university campus. “I was quite intrigued,” Campbell says. “Heading down there for the first session, I didn’t know what to expect.” For the first couple of sessions, the players found it a challenge not to run for the ball. “It feels unnatural,” Campbell says, “to see the ball go past and not run after it. But if you run, it’s a foul. So at first there was a lot of blowing the whistle.”
Over time, people got the hang of it, and when the initial 12-week study came to an end, nobody wanted to disband the team – least of all Campbell. He offered to continue organising the games. “But I’m not going to lie,” says Campbell, who is now 32 and works as a health and social care researcher, “I didn’t think we would still be going seven years later.”
A few people have dropped out, but the team still meet every Thursday for a knockabout. “For me,” Campbell says, “it’s always been about enabling them to continue to participate. It’s exercise, but it’s also that light-touch social interaction that people really need, and the team really see the value of that. I enjoy facilitating them to have that space.”
It’s also satisfying, Campbell says, from a coaching perspective: “The football has got significantly better over the past few years. This is great, because when you’re older, you have fewer opportunities to build skills. When some of these guys first started, it made their week if they scored a goal. Whereas now they might score a hat-trick, because they have built those skills.”