We Wear the Same Shirt campaign coaxes autistic footballer out of his shell

Football is about far more than just winning, losing and hating VAR with every sinew of your being – to thousands of people across the country it’s a vital social gateway.

Many of us will take for granted just how easy it is to grab your retro England jersey out of the cupboard, slip a pair of boots on and head down to the local five-a-side pitch every Tuesday. We’ll kick the ball around for a bit, grab a couple of pints and then head home without a second thought. But for 27-year-old Luke DeGilbert, it’s not that simple.

You see Luke has autism, and despite being a massive football fan – as well as a keen player – he’s struggled to find anywhere suitable to play with any sort of regularity.

"It was hard for me to play football when I was younger," Luke tells Daily Star Sport. "My leg is really weak and I had to have loads of operations on it. At one point I had to wear a frame.

"I used to have bad epilepsy too, which also made things difficult. It was hard for me to just fit in and find somewhere."

Growing up in the Welsh town of Newport, options were fairly limited. Cardiff was a bus ride away, but who’s going to have space on their team for an unassuming guy with autism?

But a few years ago, Luke was approached by members of the Newport County Community, who were setting up a new initiative called ‘We Wear the Same Shirt’ – which aims to bring people together through sport to tackle disability and mental health stigma. Suddenly he had the opportunity not only to play football every week, but to do so with dozens of other people facing similar sorts of challenges.

"The charity’s aim is for everyone to play with a smile on their face," Luke says with a rather appropriate grin.

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"It makes me happy, training and playing games, and it helps my confidence. It also helps me develop not only as a player, but as a person as well. My epilepsy is no longer a problem now either, and playing sport has really helped that."

Over the years Luke has made dozens of new friends, including a number of Newport County players who offer a helping hand every now and then, but despite finding a football sanctuary of sorts, Luke’s disorder still tests him.

"Sometimes, my autism makes me really nervous and anxious before training and games. But when I overcome it and I go [through with it], I feel much better for it," adds Luke.

And who wouldn’t? Particularly when you get to play the odd match in Swindon Town's 15,000-seater stadium!

"When I played on the pitch that was an amazing moment, the fans were chanting my name (he says with another smile). ‘There’s only one Luke DeGilbert’, they sang," he added. "Getting support from the crowd really helps with my confidence."

We Wear the Same Shirt has given Luke a rare opportunity to push himself to his physical and mental limits – which is something people with autism rarely get to do.

At the end of the day, football should be for everyone, but it’s easy to miss how frequently that isn’t the case.

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