Former Liverpool and England full-back Phil Neal has been playing walking football with his former team-mate Alan Kennedy (not pictured). Photograph: Colin McPherson for the Guardian
On windswept astroturf around the corner from Anfield stadium, 34 men with a combined age of well over 2,500 were being put through their paces before their weekly walking football game. “Come on lads,” says their coach, Bill Bygroves. “Get those hips going. Pretend you’re dancing with your girlfriend — or boyfriend. That’s right, Jim. On your toes. Very nice. Can you believe he’s 90? Look at him go!”
On the sidelines, one of England’s most successful players of all time winced as he stretched out his calves. “I think I’ll give this bit a miss today,” says Phil Neal, as men 20 years his senior followed orders to sit down with a ball between their feet. “I was at Kenny Dalglish’s golf day yesterday so I’m a bit worn out.”
When he first turned up to the walking football sessions at Anfield sports and community centre last year, the other players thought they were dreaming. Surely that wasn’t Phil Neal lining up for selection. The Phil Neal. The only player to appear in all four of Liverpool’s European Cup victories between 1977 and 1984. Only Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have won more trophies than his 23. The unforgiveable bubble perm had long given way to a shiny bald head but it was unmistakably him, the defender they nicknamed Mr Consistency.
His new team-mates weren’t starstruck for long, despite many of them standing in the Kop during Neal’s heyday. Before he had a chance to get his bearings he’d been nutmegged by Tommy Doran, a 73-year-old retired builder. Until seizing that golden opportunity, Doran’s proudest footballing moment was aged eight, when an impromptu game in the Anfield car park with 50s Liverpool legend Louis Bimpson left him with a broken wrist.
“Phil Neal is an idol of mine,” says Joe Blundell, 81. “I was amazed to see him here, but you quickly realise how ordinary he is.” He wondered whether the current generation of Liverpool stars would be doing the same in their dotage. “The money is so high now they live in another sphere, don’t they?” Maybe Mo Salah would, he mused. “He’s building a school and a hospital back home in Egypt, isn’t he?”
The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.
Neal, along with his old team-mate Alan Kennedy, had been invited along by Bygroves, who doubles as Liverpool FC’s chaplain and was signed by Bill Shankly as a schoolboy. If it began as a charitable gesture it soon became a genuine passion for both veterans: Kennedy got so into the rapidly growing sport that he was recently selected for England’s first over 60s walking football team, alongside Bobby Charlton’s younger brother Tommy, 73.
Both Kennedy and Neal are now regulars at Bygroves’ sessions, an initiative of Red Neighbours, Liverpool’s community outreach programme. Neither are paid to attend. The sessions are free, apart from the tea and biscuits afterwards. As always, at any scouse gathering, the banter is relentless. “I only joined up so I could give Phil Neal the runaround,” says Tony Perischine, a 74-year-old Evertonian, who plays with his brothers, aged 64 and 70. “Oi,” yells Bygroves, as Neal misses a pass. “Just ‘cos you’ve played in five Champions League finals doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay attention, mate.”
At 67, Neal is one of the younger members of the Red Neighbours walking football squad. Though he doesn’t look it, Jim Mounsey, 90, is the oldest. Rules dictate that no one is allowed to tackle him or any of the octagenarians once they have the ball, but Mousney still looks sharp and scored a tidy penalty when the Guardian was in the stands. He joined up after a friend spotted a flyer in the local clinic and suggested he give it a go. He’d been looking for a way to keep fit after his local swimming baths shut down and now relishes the game. “I still feel the impulse to kick the ball,” he says.
The sessions have been life-changing for Sol Sorsky, who is 82. When he started, in January, he couldn’t even kick the ball. He was not allowed to play at school — “I wore glasses and lads with glasses couldn’t play football” — and was dangerously overweight. The transformation has been dramatic. “Everyone says I look fitter. I’m much happier. One of the other lads said to me the other day, ‘no offence but when you first came here you were a doddery old man. Now you’re a rottweiler!’”
The social aspect is as important as the exercise, says Bygroves. Post-match refreshments often turn into a Beatles singalong with ladies from Red Neighbours’ walking netball team, who practise inside at the same time. The men even have their own supporters: Liz Hayes, 68, and Edith White, 79, who cheer from the sidelines.
Neal insists he gets a decent workout from walking football, though he is trying to learn to take things a little easier: “My brain still thinks I’m a Liverpool full-back but my body has other ideas.”
The non-contact rules dictate that he can’t tackle as hard as he did in his prime, and running is strictly forbidden. “But yes, you do let some of them get past. At 90, you deserve a clear chance at goal. You can still be as competitive as Klopp’s boys whatever your age.”
Answer: They both love WF