You'll never walk alone: Bamber Bridge's Panthers Walking Football saving lives one step at a time

It will come as no surprise to learn that, as the national sport, football is wildly popular in the UK, with almost two million people playing it regularly. But seldom will you find a case where football is making as big an impact as it is three times a week at a tennis centre in Bamber Bridge.

By Jack Marshall, Reporter
Thursday, 19th August 2021, 4:55 am
Panthers Walking Football
Panthers Walking Football

Because that's where Panthers Walking Football meet.

Founded three years ago, Panthers is a friendly over-50s walking football club with around 80 members, an average of 25 of whom meet at their welcoming Monday, Wednesday, and Friday sessions at South Ribble Tennis Centre. And it's hardly hyperbolic to suggest that those sessions as changing and saving lives.

"It turns people's lives around," says Terry Fairclough, 69. "It's a real win-win because you improve your fitness and your mental health and, from a well-being perspective, I'm amazed organisations like the NHS aren't recommending it more. You get people going to the doctor with depression after losing a partner or because of isolation - send them down here.

Panthers Walking Football

"When you go to the GP, there should be posters up saying 'are you isolated or feeling depressed - have you considered this?'" adds Terry. "It may be for you, it may not be, but everybody who comes says they love it. We have healthy, competitive sessions, it's good banter, everybody has a laugh, and you feel part of something. It's the highlight of people's week."

Perfect for those less keen on getting involved in the faster-paced full-speed version of the sport but who still want to remain active on the football pitch, Panthers offer people the chance to take part in a spirited hour-long session after which the group typically heads out for a coffee together as well. Socially and physically, Panthers is having a real impact.

"From a personal point of view, my wife has been very poorly and I've had injuries and a heart attack myself," says Alan Rawcliffe, 66, on a damp Friday morning. "Without the Panthers, everything would've been a real struggle. And you can see how popular it is by the fact that, even though the weather has been awful today, we've still had 18 people down.

"We're keeping people out of hospital and we're a social lifeline as well, especially during Covid as we've managed to keep going throughout the pandemic whilst still abiding by the guidelines," adds Alan, who lives in Lostock Hall. It's been a massive outlet for people because, for some, it's the only exercise they get."

Panthers Walking Football

Terry agrees. "I've just gone for my MOT and they said how well I looked, and it's all down to the Panthers," he says. "Our group is 80-odd people with an average age in the mid-70s, and over the three years, we've not lost a single person. It's so uplifting to see people enjoying it because, if you retire at 65, you can only cut the grass and wash the car so many times.

"The club gives people purpose," Terry, who is from Cottam, adds. "What would I be doing if it wasn't for this? It's a complete no-brainer from a health, well-being, and social perspective."

As well as their thrice-weekly sessions, Panthers also put out over-60s and over-65s teams who play in a Manchester walking football league, with the club having also playing in the odd UK-wide competition. Dedicated to social good, they also hold fundraisers throughout the year and donate any surfeit from subs to charity.

"The club is as important socially as it is physically," explains Alan. "It gets people out the house, which is vital for those who have retired in terms of mental health and, because we're so inclusive, we even get people who aren't really into the sport coming down. Like this one lad who's 75 and whose son passed away. He was in a dark place, but he's a different man now and he loves his football.

Panthers Walking Football

"There's a lot of pride in being involved in something like that."

Panthers Walking Football