Grassroots hero Niall O'Donnell has grown Wakefield's Walking Football club to over 100 members


‘Being an organiser is a walk in the park for me!’: Grassroots unsung hero Niall O’Donnell used years of banking experience to grow Wakefield’s Walking Football club from six to over 100 members

  • Niall O’Donnell has been nominated for Sportsmail’s Grassroots Unsung Hero 
  • He used years of banking experience to grow Wakefield’s Walking Football club 
  • The 66-year-old has seen membership grow from six to 100 people since 2014

After a certain age, playing sport becomes harder due to a lack of accessibility and organised sessions.

Some activities such as walking are easy and good for fitness but lack the social element that team sports possess, according to Niall O’Donnell, who runs Wakefield Walking Football Club.

Since starting in 2014, O’Donnell has seen numbers increase weekly, with many older men in the Wakefield area attending the Walking Football sessions.

Niall O'Donnell (right) runs Wakefield Walking Football club and has seen members increase

Niall O’Donnell (right) runs Wakefield Walking Football club and has seen members increase

‘When I retired as a bank operations manager I found myself at a loss,’ says O’Donnell, 66. ‘I saw an advert that the local council were trying to start walking football for over 50s in the area.

‘When I joined there were six people playing. We all thoroughly enjoyed it but a group of six playing a game of football on a full-sized pitch isn’t much fun!’

And so O’Donnell used his years of experience in the banking sector to grow the sessions. He started by putting a picture in the local paper — with a few extras to make it look busier than it was — and saw numbers soar.

There are now as many as four sessions a week with 100 members in total and around 30 people turning up to every session.

They charge £2 a session and the local council has backed the venture, which has enabled them to get more kit and balls.

Asked what it means to be nominated as a ‘hero’, O’Donnell responds: ‘Hero makes me embarrassed but I’ll tell you what I am — I am an organiser.

O'Donnell used years of banking experience to grow the club from six members to 100

O’Donnell used years of banking experience to grow the club from six members to 100

‘In my working life I used to have people doing jobs that you wouldn’t think people do now, making payments for the bank etc — things you can now do on the phone.

‘There’d be 250 of them doing that, so I am good at organising. So when I go to football, you have 30 people, I’ll put them into teams and I think that’s why I got nominated because I am the one who gets things going.’

The club have won tournaments, been to St George’s Park and some of the players have gone on to represent England.

And while those players may have the bragging rights, O’Donnell is insistent that his sessions are a social activity designed for fun.

Many of the men are retired and can be lonely. But the camaraderie and enjoyment of an hour-long kickabout with like-minded people can be the highlight of their week. ‘When you get to a certain age everyone wants to play sport but it’s hard. Old men play golf, for example but it is not everyone’s scene,’ adds O’Donnell. ‘What we do helps your general health and demeanour. It keeps you interested in something which is good mentally.

‘And it’s an opportunity to have a bit of social interaction. And for some of our lads, they don’t have interaction with anybody else.

‘When I get down there half an hour early there’s always three or four in the car park who clearly haven’t got anything else to do and see this as a chance to get out. It’s great to see them walking along together laughing and chatting away. There are some people for whom it’s been invaluable. You see everybody’s enjoying what they’re doing.’

O’Donnell’s skills stretch further than laying out cones. A couple of weeks ago, being organised enough to arrange a defibrillator on site helped save a life — not for the first time.

‘We had a new fellow who turned up, his second time. He was 70, a good footballer back in the day and did a bit of scouting for clubs,’ explains O’Donnell. ‘Promptly, he had a heart attack. But we have a defibrillator and we brought him around. He’s the second person we have revived.

After Christian Eriksen’s collapse on the pitch for Denmark at Euro 2020 last month, there is a nationwide shortage of defibrillator batteries

After Christian Eriksen’s collapse on the pitch for Denmark at Euro 2020 last month, there is a nationwide shortage of defibrillator batteries

‘In January 2019, we had an 80-year-old turn up. He walked on to the pitch, hadn’t actually kicked a ball when he collapsed in the centre circle. We managed to revive him with the defibrillator.’

After Christian Eriksen’s collapse on the pitch for Denmark at Euro 2020 last month, there is a nationwide shortage of defibrillator batteries, says O’Donnell.

But despite the two incidents, he is eager to finish by adding that the physical and mental benefits outweigh any risks and he is keen to see walking football be a more popular and accessible hobby for elderly men and women — and thanks to people like him, there are plenty of opportunities for everyone.

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