The incredible success of Bolton Arena’s women’s walking football team

Bolton Arena’s women’s walking football team has won nearly every tournament they’ve played in – an achievement they’re naturally delighted about.

Earlier this month, the over-40s team won the National Cup at Lilleshall following on from their two national victories in the summer and the over-50s came runners up.

The walking football program at Bolton Arena was first established in 2015, off the back of a Barclays advert promoting the sport. After eight weeks, they had enough for a 4-a-side game. Today, more than 128 walking footballers pass through the stadium each week – the oldest being 82 years old.

Marcus Brown, football manager for Bolton Arena, said: “It was never just for the game. People use it for socialising, rehab and fitness later in life.

“People have built friendships because of walking football. We haven’t had our first wedding yet, but I’m working on it.”

The Bolton News: Pre-win team photo with manager Gary Jackson Pre-win team photo with manager Gary Jackson (Image: Newsquest)

With a minimum age of 35, the rules of the game prioritize restriction to ensure that no one is seriously injured. Walking football is a non-contact sport, one foot has to be on the ground at all times, the ball cannot go above head height and you can only tackle a player from the front.

In February of this year, Marcus noticed there was a gap. Despite the growth and popularity of the sport, there was little infrastructure in the area for women footballers.

So a women’s social session was set up, captained by Danni Toward, a former PE teacher.

She said: “I’ve played for 20 odd years. I was getting towards the end of my 11-a-side career, and things were starting to hurt. People were getting faster, and I couldn’t catch them. And so when Marcus introduced me to walking football, I thought, ‘No, I’m not old enough for that.’

“But then I came down and gave it a try and instantly loved it. It’s a thinking game.”

The Bolton News: The team with Bolton Arena football manager Marcus BrownThe team with Bolton Arena football manager Marcus Brown (Image: Newsquest)

The team quickly developed from social to competitive. Soon they were sponsored by Age UK and on top form.

The over-40s team has won every tournament they’ve played in which has granted players a new lease of life when many thought their sports careers were over.

Danni has just been selected for the over-40s England squad, alongside four other Bolton players.

Competition aside, the team has offered much more than victory. Vicky Dillion had cancer seven years ago and joined the team to try and get back into a sport. She now has her sights on an England place.

Vicky said: “I’m getting on a bit now, I’m 41 and I can’t really play running football. People assume it’s really easy, but you have to be so accurate in your passing because of the pace.

“The social side is amazing as well, I’ve made so many friends,” she added.

Marcus admits he often mutes the team group chat due to constant chatting.

Danni said: “Our WhatsApp group is going to take all of your data, it’s a constant laugh every single day.”

She continued: “I think the difference for players like me is that we’re older. In a young changing room, the conversations aren’t the same. We’ve got a full group of people who understand life and what stage we’re all at – it’s just funny.”

Launching a women’s team in 2022 became serendipitous. The women’s game was quickly expanding, the team was doing well, winning tournaments and even being called up to the England squad. But the Lionesses winning the Euros this summer has proven to skyrocket interest in the sport.

Numbers nearly doubled post-Euros victory. Danni said: “It’s just blown out of proportion. The interest has been fantastic.

“We had some girls last week who’d never played before. They’re in the 60s and they just wanted to come down and try it. That’s what we’re here for.”

As Bolton Arena’s walking football program continues to grow, its footballers show no signs of slowing down.

Next year, the inaugural walking football World Cup is set to take place and Marcus is vying for Bolton’s involvement.

He said: “It would be great if we were able to host the World Cup at the University of Bolton Stadium, I’m trying everything I can.”