Why Down syndrome boy can no longer play as 12th man

NORTH Coast Football has cracked down on a Yamba junior soccer team playing a Down syndrome boy as its 12th man.

For two years the Yamba under-14s have played Marc Stillhard as a 12th player, despite the rules of the game stipulating a maximum of 11 players a side can be on the pitch at one time.

Marc's mother Enid Reichler-Stillhard said for two years teams in the competition had been willing to waive the rule, allowing Marc to play a full game as a 12th player, without disadvantaging his team.

But that situation has changed following a complaint to the organising body, North Coast Football, which has issued a statement reinforcing the rule all games must be played with 11-a-side teams.

NCF general manager Reuben Robertson said his organisation became aware of the situation in only the past few days, although it had issued a ruling allowing Marc, who is 16, to play down two age groups.

"The only comment I would like to make is the one we issued on our Facebook page," Mr Robertson said.

The key passage in the statement said: "Unfortunately we now have the situation where a club or a person associated with it has complained to North Coast Football. Rules being what they are, NCF have advised we are not able to continue with Marc on the field as an extra player as this is competitive grade football."

Mrs Reichler-Stillhard said: "Marc plays football/ soccer in under-14s, down an age group but still can't keep pace with them, so two years ago a coach suggested why not play him as a 12th man as an extra person on the field.

"Each week we ask the other team if this is okay and the answer was always yes, except once right at the beginning but they changed their mind once they understood the reason."

Officials from rival clubs said they had no problems with Yamba fielding Marc as a 12th player.

Westlawn Tigers president Liz Weatherstone said the Tigers under-14s were due to play Yamba on Saturday and would be happy if Marc was on the field as an extra player.

"Westlawn supports Marc, but we don't want to compromise NCF," Ms Weathertsone said.

"Westlawn will be asking for permission to allow Marc to continue playing as he has been for the last two years."

Grafton Gunners president Shanon Tough said the club had no problem with Marc as a 12th player when his club played Yamba.

Mr Tough said his club had teamed up with Special Olympics Australia to provide opportunities for players with disabilities.

"In our under-14s we have six kids with disabilities," he said.

"None are the same as Marc, so we play 11 on 11.

"They get thrashed each week, but keep turning up each week because they love having a game."

Mr Tough said Marc playing as a 12th player enabled his team to treat him as just another player.

"It's not a massive advantage, in fact it hardly makes a difference," he said.

"The kids are able to play competitively around him and if he gets a high five off the kids who scored a goal it just doesn't make his day, it makes his whole world."

Mrs Reichler-Stillhard said it was up to NCF how it administered its games, but was disappointed in the ruling.

"This means for Marc to continue to play, we will have to disadvantage his team (something that I don't want to do) because as much as I want to him to play I am not that selfish," she said.

"If Marc is on the field as a recognised player then effectively his team is playing one player short."

She said the children who played in Marc's team and against him were shocked at what's happened.

"I have spoken to our club and other clubs who are shocked, horrified and disgusted and that is just from the kids," she said.

"The Yamba kids felt so strongly that it is wrong and unfair, they refused to play the scheduled match against that team."

Mrs Reichler-Stillhard said she had also received support from the Australian Paralympic Soccer team, the Pararoos, as well as coaches of disabled players.

"Coaches, managers and parents have offered to write letters and do whatever it takes to keep the system we have in place going," she said

"They all love the fact that Marc plays and that he has a wonderful time each week.

"To watch an opposition team give Marc the ball and trip over their own feet to let him score a goal was one of the best events in my life."



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