FA Chair Debbie Hewitt left inspired by a walking football team in Liverpool

Friday 16 Feb 2024
Debbie Hewitt made the trip to Liverpool in January to meet members of the team

I recently spent the most uplifting afternoon at the Liverpool County Football Association, meeting with members of the Northern Lights Parkinson’s walking football team.

This is a group who share the common challenge of having Parkinson’s Disease, the fastest growing neurological condition in the world, and who belong to a walking football group.

The group is a self-funded, voluntary organisation with a mission to “put a smile back on the face of people with Parkinson's.”

Walking football is a version of the game in which players are not allowed to run or head the ball. It allows people to play despite age or mobility restrictions. I’d already met the co-founder of this group, John Roche, a former semi-professional footballer, who now plays for the England walking football team, alongside others impacted by Parkinson’s (the oldest of which is 72).

Last year, John attended an England men’s senior match at Wembley as our guest alongside Stuart Carrington, who leads disability football for Liverpool County FA.

Today was a great opportunity for me to go and meet the rest of the Northern Lights team and many of their partners and see and hear for myself the impact of the work they do.

The idea for John’s team grew out of a chat he had with a man sitting beside him at a local match: James Clark, who also has Parkinson's.

“It was like we were meant to sit in those two seats,” John told me. He and James organised a team to play in the Ray Kennedy Cup, an international tournament for people with Parkinson's, named after the famous Liverpool footballer who also had the disease.

The Northern Lights walking soccer team meets weekly and participants range in age from 30 to 70. At these sessions, Stuart coaches them through warm-ups and drills and incorporates lots of breaks so players don't get too tired. For the same reason, matches are limited to 20 minutes. Throw into this mix the complexity of the players taking their medicines and you get a sense of how challenging it can be for these players, but I was inspired by what I experienced on my visit.

It was a rainy, windy, and cold January day when I arrived in Liverpool to watch the team at their weekly session. I got the opportunity to chat to a few of the players’ partners first, including Mary Stead and Christine McIndoe.

The players are supported by their partners at the sessions and games

Mary and Christine shared with me just how much this group means to them, and how they use this as a support network to cope with the challenges they have managing their partner’s symptoms. Whether it’s discussing their medication or sharing hints and tips on coping with the stresses of a partner who struggles both physically and mentally with this debilitating disease, Mary told me that were it not for this support group, she really doesn’t know how she would cope.

As the players came back into a room, their slow walk is a stark contrast to the individuals I’d watched out on the pitch. The players tell me that once they step up to a football, it is as if by magic that their condition disappears and without a trace of the tremors their condition typically causes, their football prowess takes over.

“I get the ball in my possession, and my body changes,” one of them tells me.

Rod Houghton, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2007, told me that “Playing again makes me feel like I'm ten feet tall and the sport is embedded in my brain, where Parkinson's can't get at it."

It’s extraordinary. Even more so that one of the group, Brendan, never played football until he had Parkinson’s or even had an interest in football.

Their footballing skills are more remarkable when you consider the medication they take to control their symptoms, often as they are playing a game in a tournament.

Medication is medication and the complex schedules must be adhered to. John takes 14 tablets a day to manage his condition and is looked after by his wife, who he said “puts up” with his changing mood due to the medication, but she knows that the football will always have a positive impact.

John explains the power of putting a target in front of people, of how they can’t lace a boot, but they can play football.

The players also share that they don’t just play football, as Northern Lights offers activities such as golf and fishing. One summed it up by telling me “I’ve got Parkinson’s, but Parkinson’s doesn’t have me.”

The camaraderie among the group is standout. Last Christmas, they joined other Parkinson’s sufferers to put on a pantomime “Snow White and the Seven Gnomes” something they all clearly enjoyed even though many of them feared in rehearsals.

Keith and Christine on their wedding day

The laughter as they shared stories from that night will stick with me for a very long time. I also heard the wonderful news that one of the players, Keith and his girlfriend Christine would be getting married the following week, after 22 years together.

Needless to say, most of the Northern Lights crew were planning to be there to celebrate the happy event with this very special couple.

John commits to all of the participants: “If you come to me with something Parkinson's has taken from you, we'll fight to get it back.”

He summed it up for me as I was leaving “All the things that Parkinson’s says you can’t do, we challenge!”

And so, to the next tournament on 21 April 2024 at St George’s Park when the Northern Lights will be there playing against other teams – hoping to win the Cure Parkinson’s Cup. All are welcome so come and be inspired.

By Debbie Hewitt MBE Chair of the Football Association