- By Jenny Rees
- BBC Wales Health Correspondent
Mandy Gornicki thought her soccer days were behind her.
The former Wales captain hung up her football boots at the age of 49, but a chance meeting in a cafe secured another cap for her country – this time in the women’s walking football team.
It was only after working with students to assess the impact of sport on health at her club in Merthyr Tydfil that she began to appreciate the benefits that sport brings.
“It changed my life. My husband says ‘you come back from (walking) football and you’re alive’.”
She said that it wasn’t until a few months later that she looked at her team from the sidelines and thought, “You know what? We’re all either going through, have gone through, or will go through this big thing called menopause.”
While it affected the players in different ways, she said the team provided a safe space for those discussions, something she “never had when I was going through it.”
She said women often stop playing other team sports in their late 30s.
“When you need the support of those women, you lose it, don’t you?”
Since the minimum age for her walking football team is 40, she said that allowed it to come back.
Researchers from the University of South Wales studied the perceived physical, social and psychological benefits of walking football, as well as the impact of exercise on perimenopausal and postmenopausal women.
MSc student Egan Goodison said: “Being involved in the game has offered women a new avenue where they can get support as they go through menopause or are in perimenopause.”
She added that the camaraderie involved in the women’s walk-on soccer teams is “very much appreciated.”
Tania James focused her master’s research on the impact of different types of exercise on these women.
“We know there are 32 physical symptoms of perimenopause and menopause and 26 emotional states that we can measure.
“So I’m looking at individual activities, like just going out for a run, or group activities like a yoga or spin class, and then I’m looking at whether team sports show any difference in effectively supporting menopausal symptoms.”
Growing up on a coal farm, Mandy played football on the “board” with her three older brothers every day, while watching the game of the day with her dad was considered a special time together.
But come Saturday, she would have to stand and watch because the girls weren’t allowed to play, which was “just wrong,” she said.
She was 26 years old when she could play for the women’s team 11 a side.
By then she was a physical training instructor in the army and was selected to play for Wales against Iceland in 1993 in Port Talbot.
She said: “I remember the kit we had, the under-21s had played in it the day before, so they threw it in the wash.
“The pants were too big, the shirts massive, but it didn’t matter. We had the equipment and we were playing an international football match.”
On his heels were the European championships against Germany, Switzerland and Croatia – in the final match Mandy was asked to be the captain.
“That gave me goosebumps. That was the highlight for me, until the Wales captain.”
But by this internship she was 30 and working full-time managing sports centers in Somerset, where weekend time off was difficult to negotiate.
So she made the difficult decision to leave – although she continued to play for her local team in Bridgewater until she was 49.
“I was going to try to last until I was 50, but by that stage I was already in the police – I was working shifts. Menopause started and my body was saying ‘this is stupid now’.”
It was this chance encounter with a men’s walking football team in a mid-Wales cafe that opened the door to a new perspective on the famous sport.
Until now she was retired and living in Wales and in the summer of 2022 she set up a women’s walking football team in Merthyr Tydfil for over 40s.
Her teammate Sharon Jones first played college soccer for Bangor City Ladies.
Now 51 and living in Merthyr, she only recently gave up the 11-a-side game in favor of walking football and was selected to play for Wales.
“I would have loved to be a Welsh international in running football but it was never my time. But I still have a Welsh walking football cap,” she said.
Sharon said staying fit was a big priority for her and her husband while raising their two-year-old son, especially if Sharon wanted to pass on her love of the game to him.
Lyn Jehu, a lecturer in community football development at the University of South Wales, said his perception of walking football was often that it was for older men.
But he sees it as a perfect approach for those who might not otherwise engage in physical activity — such as those with trauma-related issues, victims of domestic abuse or those from ethnically diverse communities.
“It’s non-contact and there’s no problem playing in traditional clothes because you can play in whatever you’re comfortable in,” he said.
Students at the university researched the physical, social and psychological benefits of sport, particularly in ex-coal mining communities.
“We know we have problems here with lower life expectancy, far higher rates of mental health problems and various co-morbidities like higher rates of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers,” Lyn said.
“Walking football can be a preventative form of medicine and can really help people get involved in football.”