After a COVID hiatus, the AFL Umpires Association is proud to have re-launched the Fiona McBurney Match Day Experience on Sunday 30th April 2023, at the Richmond v Gold Coast game at Marvel Stadium.

With the support of Down Syndrome Victoria, the Match Day Experience aims to connect sport and disability by providing a unique experience for individuals to undertake an official guest AFL trainer role for the AFL umpires on match day.

This round we had the honour of hosting our first participant of the year, Manahil Merchant, and her mother, Zeenat Merchant.

Manahil, 16 years old, is a passionate sports fan who jumped at the opportunity to come out onto the field with our umpires and experience what it is like to be in the middle of thousands of footy-crazed fans.

Upon arrival at Marvel, Manahil and Zeenat were welcomed by Ben Carbonaro, the chaperone of the day, given a tour of the stadium, and shown what the umpires get up to on game day. Ben has been involved with the program for a number of years, but this was the first time he has been a chaperone. Being on the spectrum himself, he takes pride in helping the younger generations achieve their sporting dreams.

‘’It makes me feel so warm to know that we’re exposing people with disability to sport,’’ Ben says.

Nick Foot, one of the four field umpires selected to officiate, was thrilled to be a part of Manahil’s day and presented her with her own AFL umpiring shirt signed by all the umpires. If it was not apparent from her smile alone, Manahil’s mum, Zeenat, told us she has not wanted to take it off since receiving it.

During the 2023 AFL Round 07 match between the Richmond Tigers and the Gold Coast Suns at Marvel Stadium. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos)

When it came time for Manahil to walk out onto the field with Nick and the group, her excitement was infectious for the umpires who had walked out there many times before. Nick shared what it was like for the umpires on the Match Day Experience.

“It’s really empowering for the group. Everyone’s on edge about decisions and performance, but getting to walk out with Manahil, created such a calming and positive atmosphere which helped with team performance and mindset.”

Manahil was a star on the day, whether it was helping to deliver drinks, sweatbands and or helping out with pre-game warm-ups, she did it with a huge smile on her face. She was quick to say that the highlight of the day was being able to hold up the match day ball and meeting Liam Baker from her favourite team, Richmond, who came to say hello before the game.

Nick went on to explain what the Match Day Experience means to him.

“I love being involved in the program because whilst seeing the smile on the participants’ faces is incredibly heart-warming, seeing the family and how rapt they are is just as special.”

Zeenat said that seeing her daughter out on the field and doing what she loves was fantastic, particularly because Manahil has aspirations to pursue a career in sport, and she is currently doing a VET certificate 2 in sports.

“The whole experience was very positive and inclusive, and the AFLUA was great at making sure we had every ease on the day. We would love the opportunity to come back.”

We would like to thank Down Syndrome Victoria for helping us to make the Fiona McBurney Match Day Experience possible, Zeenat and Manahil for joining the Experience, and everyone involved who made it such a fun day.


Article written by Taylor Donlon.


Featured image – During the 2023 AFL Round 07 match between the Richmond Tigers and the Gold Coast Suns at Marvel Stadium. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos)

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