PNG’s “wheelchair coach” makes his mark

Dubbed “the wheelchair coach”, Jonathon Ila takes kids from the streets of PNF and turns them into National Representatives.

Lae, Papua New Guinea’s second largest city, has a thriving junior Australian Rules football competition with over 25 teams. But volunteers are in short supply. Parents are rarely seen, and the young players “coach themselves”. There are often no football jumpers, and footballs are scarce.

In 2009, Jonathon Ila was 15 years old, and after 10 years of watching his father and uncles play senior football in Port Moresby and Lae, he decided he wanted to coach. Jonathan’s grandfathers on both sides of his family are two of PNG’s greats of Australian Rules at club, provincial, and national levels.

There is nothing particularly unusual about Jonathon’s desire to coach, other than his ongoing struggle with Duchene Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). Jonathon has been unable to walk since 2002, and his wheelchair has been a very close and personal friend since then. Jonathon is quite often in pain, but never complains. The life expectancy of DMD sufferers is 25. 

Jonathon’s love of Australian Rules, and passion to coach, led him to start his own club for children from the streets of Lae.  Lae is a tough place. There have been occasions when gun-shots have gone off, and knives have been wielded, while the boys and girls of Lae play on the city’s Eriku Oval.

In 2009, Jonathan’s club, the Sall’e Dogs, registered in the under 12 and 13 Divisions. By 2011 the club grew to 4 teams, including an U15 girls squad. Jonathon runs the club with assistance from his mother Josephine, and father Ken. Jonathon does all the coaching.

Since 2009 many Sall’e Dogs have represented their region, and gone on to play for the PNG under 14 and under 16 teams. Several of Jonathon’s charges were recently part of a PNG under 14 squad that won the Queensland State Academy Championships by 10 goals.

Jonathon Ila has coached boys and girls with very little experience, and limited knowledge of the fundamentals of Australian Rules. Many of his players have grown into responsible young citizens, and very good footballers.

The 2013 Sa’lle Dogs will wear new jerseys designed by Jonathon. They are the only club in Lae with their own jumpers.

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