It may well be thirty years since Nottingham Forest last appeared at Wembley, but should they lift the Championship play-off trophy it will be their third piece of silverware in a week. Whilst Steve Cooper and his troops have been busy preparing for a shot at the Premier league the NFFC walking football teams have been taking Europe by storm.
Walking football? You ask. Yes, you heard correctly, and it is one of, if not the fastest growing sports in the country right now. Recently, I caught up with Garry Birtles, Danny Boyes, and Andy Muldoon ahead of their ground-breaking triumph on the continent.
I’d heard snippets about the sport but never realised there was a team/teams competing under the name of Nottingham Forest. However, despite their numerous triumphs and accolades they are yet to be officially recognised by the club despite being represented by a plethora of former Reds, including one who scored the winning goal in the 1990 League Cup final, Nigel Jemson.
So, as we took a seat in Southbank bar the lads enlightened me upon all things walking football and the rhetoric within. Danny Boyes, former Ilkeston Town manager and teammate of mine got straight to the point; “it began when Andy (Muldoon) and I attended a walking football event hosted by Forest in the community, neither of us had played for thirty years but it was a great incentive for folks to get out and about, and great for the mind also. Since then, we formed our own team and believe we’ve taken it to a different level.”
Andy Muldoon, former Arnold Town manager, explained how the NFFC tag came about. “We entered a league under this name because we’d previously played under the Forest Vets title at 11-a-side, competing in charity matches and raising substantial amounts of money in the process.”
As the conversation began to flow freely it was hard to ignore the two-time European Cup legend Garry Birtles, who, dressed immaculately as always sat passively throughout the opening exchanges. The lads went on to explain how they won local leagues, East of England Leagues and even reached the National final on their journey to the recent triumphs.
I enquired about the rules and conduct of the walking game and was informed that it’s 6-a-side and non-contact. Hilariously, Garry Birtles took this opportunity to join the conversation by saying “And this is why I’m only the ambassador and not playing, I’d have to do something else if you know what I mean!” The grimace on his face alone was enough to tell me that the tricks you learn as a striker in the 70’s and 80’s never leave you.
All three explained how Covid had stunted the progression of NFFC’s walking game and how tragedy brought them together once more. Garry Birtles’s wonderful wife Samantha passed away in June 2021 which prompted a united front by friends, professionals, and media alike to organise a football event in her name for charity which raised a staggering £64k. As a forerunner to the main 11-a-side game, a walking football tournament took place featuring Steve Chettle, Gary Mills, Bryn Gunn, Darren Heyes, Nigel Jemson, and others. Inadvertently, this would be the catalyst for their European accomplishments.
Nottingham Forest winners of the 2022 Mallorca Football Tournament.
In 2019 Nottingham Forest walking sides made a great account of themselves in Europe with both the over 50s and 60s side narrowly losing on penalties to Bolton Wanderers and the French national side, respectively. The team that lifted the trophy contained none other than the legendary Chris Waddle which speaks for itself. Having sat and listened to Andy, Danny, and Garry it was clear to see this was no vanity project and that underlying themes were those of camaraderie, mental wellbeing, and unity; why else would they self-fund such an incentive and at around £400 per man their intentions were truly forthright. Danny summed it up beautifully; “we’re completely self-funded, we actually spent £1500 in the official Forest club shop to kit the lads out properly, buying shirts, training tops, pendants, and tracksuits to present the right image, hardly representative of a lads weekend to Blackpool if you know what I mean?” Cue Garry Birtles…..”I hate tracksuits, so much so that during a tour of Australia with Forest in 1984 I opted to select my own, obviously I chose the most horrendously garish one available to express my distain!” Judging by his attire in the bar it was hard to imagine Mr Birtles in anything less fetching than the latest any catwalk had to offer.
As the European tournaments racked up so did the notoriety, the NFFC name truly spoke for itself as Danny, Andy and Garry became inundated with invitations to Bilbao, France, Malmo, and Anderlecht. Once more Garry Birtles leaned toward me saying “I certainly won’t be going back there;” in reference to the match fixing scandal of 1984. That said, it was a reunion with Malmo in 2019 that alerted the NFFC players to the fact that the Swedish side contained some of those who locked horns with Birtles and Co in 1979.
There is a burning desire for Andy Muldoon, Danny Boyes, and Garry Birtles to be recognised officially by Nottingham Forest, not for fame, grandeur, or vanity; but for pride in what they do and why they do it. The lads quoted Norwich City as prime example, telling me that they are now under the official umbrella of the club and representing the many positives of walking football with every game they play.
I asked about the rules of walking football: both Andy and Danny explained that “they vary with associations, from Scotland to England and Europe.” The crux of it is, no running and no contact but in the words of Mr Birtles, “at last year’s tournament I witnessed so many fouls, nasty moments, flashes of retaliation and players squaring up to each other…..and I loved every minute of it!” At this point I was silently wondering who I least like to play against, Stuart Pearce or Garry Birtles? Joking aside, this all took place at perhaps the highest standard of the walking game where ex pros are ten a penny. In Andy’s words “It won’t be long before there are full international sides consisting of ex pros.”
Whilst the allure of ex pro leagues and internationals seems mouth-watering Danny provided a fine example of the real values of walking football. “Going back to our Wednesday morning sessions, from where we started out, there was a 40-year-old chap recovering from a stroke who was partially wheelchair bound, we were able to get him standing and playing, allowing unlimited touches to ensure he was included and that’s, truly, what it’s all about.”
And so, to Mallorca. The 2022 European finals took place earlier this week with the NFFC over 50’s and 60’s racking up a staggering 23 games between them in three days amid soaring temperatures. And reminiscent of 1979 & 1980 it was back-to-back triumphs as the over 60’s beat Bolton Wanderers 3-1 before the over 50’s defeated the French national side FC Catalans 3-2 with a brace from Nigel Beer and one from none other than Nigel Jemson! I just wonder what the score would have been if Bryan Roy and Lars Bohinen made it, both keen to make the squad but had to pull out for varying reasons. Well, if you caught yourself saying “I’d still pay to see those two walking” then go one better and donate to charity in the name of Samantha Birtles!
Fittingly, the last quote of the interview came from Garry: “Hopefully, going forward the club will be able to accommodate the walking teams. Steve Cooper, since his arrival, has embraced everything Nottingham Forest, the youth teams, the women’s team, the culture, and the city in general. It’s incredible what he’s done and who knows, we (NFFC walking football) could be part of this success story one day?”
It was an honour and a pleasure to speak at length with Danny, Andy, and Garry about the wonderful world of walking football. If you would like more information regarding this positive new sporting platform you can find Danny Boyes on Facebook or by googling “Walking Football Near Me.”
*Article provided by Steve Corry (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).
*Main image @NFFC Danny Boyes (left) with Chris Waddle & Nigel Jemson (right).