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Inside mental health campaign changing lives for footballers with autism and disabilities

By Tom Victor

A footballer with autism credits a mental health campaign for helping him enjoy playing football again and become part of a proper community.

Luke Degilbert, 27, is a big football fan but found it hard to find a team when growing up. In addition to his autism, he had epilepsy when he was at school and also needed a leg brace for a period after an operation, which impacted his ability to play.

However, with the help of the We Wear the Same Shirt campaign, and his local club Newport County, he has been able to play as part of a team. He's even had the chance to step out onto a professional football pitch, representing Newport against Swindon Town 's equivalent community team.

“I started playing when I was in school, then I played for a few teams including my school team at Maes Ebbw, which was a special needs school,” Luke tells Mirror Football . " There were football tournaments when I was at school, and I played five-a-side as well."

Luke has been able to play the game he loves despite some obstacles. He spent time at Great Ormond Street hospital as a child, when he needed pins inserted into his leg, and needed to be patient before eventually being able to play football again.

He tried his luck with Sunday league teams as well, but the structure was too strict and he says some other players took things too seriously, diving in for challenges. He just wanted to play football and have fun, and this is where We Wear the Same Shirt - an initiative started by Time To Change Wales and Football Association Wales Trust - comes in.

Emily Edwards, one of the coaches of Luke’s team and a former Newport County Girls player, credits the campaign with helping change lives - including her own. She saw her own hopes of playing football for Wales ended by an ACL injury and knee replacement surgery, before being sectioned at the age of 19 and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. However, while she’s no longer playing football, she’s now able to do what she considers “the next best thing”.

“I did three years and three months in a secure hospital. It was about four weeks after I came out I actually went to We Wear the Same Shirt for the first time and it changed my life,” she says. “I've been watching County since I was nine, and now to be working with them - the people that I'm working with - it's so good. I'm working with Norman Parseille, Mike Pratt, John Relish, Nathan Blake - it's absolutely fantastic.”

Luke, meanwhile, found out more about the community team when he joined. “The coaches have been lovely and also there's been support from the football players and all that as well - from the County players but other players as well,” he says.

He has had an opportunity to meet a number of players from Newport County, including Aston Villa loanee Finn Azaz and Wales under-21 international James Waite. The high point for him, though, was playing a game at Swindon’s County Ground and even having some of the pros watch him play while they were warming up.

The team covers a range of ages and abilities. The youngest player is 19 and the oldest is approaching retirement age, while the group includes those with mental health conditions, physical disabilities, autism and learning difficulties.

“I was the first ever participant who actually turned up,” Emily says. “it was the middle of June, six years ago, and it was only me, [former Newport County player and head of community] Norman Parselle and [County In The Community coordinator] Danielle Sievwright.

“[Our players come] for a reason and that's to come and socialise, to get out of the house for an hour, meet people who are like-minded and stuff like that. We're like a big family now - I went from [just] me on the first session and now I get 15 or 18 players every Thursday.”

The Newport County team has been self-funding for much of its existence, with community quiz evenings, golf days and other fundraisers. The regular games against Swindon's mental health team are a big deal, though, and clearly mean a lot to players like Luke.

“I joined the community team about six years ago and I was one of the first people to join,” he says. “I've made a lot of friends from there and from Swindon, because Swindon have got a community side as well.

“On the pitch [at Swindon] it was amazing,” he says. “There were fans in the ground as well watching, it was a good attendance, and they sung my name as well, they were singing there’s only one Luke Degilbert.”

The Newport and Swindon We Wear the Same Shirt teams face off home and away each year, with the most recent game taking place before their respective professional teams played against each other in League Two. After the success of those fixtures, there’s a hope that more clubs across the country will set up community teams of their own so Luke and his fellow players have even more games in the future.

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