‘Bond’ fan who had X Factor to help shake and stir the Crazy Gang
CRISIS brought out the best in AFC Wimbledon white knight Xavier Wiggins months before a deadly virus came calling.
Then, for his next trick, he was ringleader of a remarkable task force distributing food parcels to the elderly, laptops and learning gadgets to schoolchildren and finding shelter for the homeless.
Football’s response to panic and pandemic has been exemplary in many cases but Wiggins and his Dons Local Action Group (DLAG) might be the finest of the lot.
First things first – the bond. When a £5.5million black hole appeared in the Crazy Gang’s finances for their return to Plough Lane, it was property businessman Wiggins who rustled up support for a bond that kept the Dons under fan ownership.
Five million quid raised in little more than six weeks? That is some whip-round on average gates of 4,000.
Now, 29 years after Wimbledon were turfed out of their spiritual home and shafted by a franchise sting, their homecoming – due later this year – to a new stadium will be glorious vindication for the driving forces of a phoenix club.
Wiggins said: “There was a big meeting, back on December 9, where we were told by our own fans’ representative that our only choice, to make up the shortfall, was to accept outside investment.
“A few noisy voices at the back of the room called out, ‘Not on our watch’ – but we had sleepwalked into a position where we didn’t have enough money to finish building the ground on our own.
“We needed to raise £5.5m in a hurry and three of us – myself, Charlie Talbot and Damian Woodward – spearheaded it with an army of volunteers.
“Out of nowhere, mainly by shouting at people outside railway stations to invest in Wimbledon, somehow we bridged the gap. The appeal was launched on January 17 and, by the end of February, we had more or less hit our target – and raised the biggest bond in English football history.
“Many of those volunteers are now helping to collect boxes of cereal or baked beans outside supermarkets.”
While the bond was an important stepping stone on the road back to Plough Lane, the humanitarian operation Wiggins launched as coronavirus crippled the supply line between supermarket shelves and elderly, vulnerable or isolated people in the community is staggering.
The DLAG started with two hubs – a pub and a sports club – but has already spread from Merton into the neighbouring boroughs of Kingston and Wandsworth, with potential for roll-out across the capital and beyond.
They are delivering 1,500 once-a-week food packs to homes, supplying food to chefs to cook 2,000 meals a week for NHS staff and 20 per cent of the operation is now focused on laptops and computer gadgets.
Wiggins, 48, set it up with sidekicks Craig Wellstead and Cormac van der Hoeven, and said: “It began as 450 volunteers, the vast majority but not all of them Wimbledon fans, and we’ve picked up lots of friends and partners along the way.
“Initially we asked for people to drop off food essentials – cereals, pasta, tinned fruit, biscuits, teas and coffee, as well as pet food and sanitary products – at two landmark collection points, the Alexandra pub in Wimbledon and the Old Ruts sports club in Merton Park.
“Of course, first and foremost we have to thank the generosity of local shoppers but we seem to have galvanised the community.
“We got lots of referrals from groups like Age UK, the Alzheimer’s Society and other charities, to establish a register of vulnerable or isolated people who might need our help and I really hope we can sustain this beyond the pandemic. As football fans, none of us can wait to go through our weekly trials of hope and despair again, but it’s vital we continue to harness our community spirit – as a club and as people.”
AFC Wimbledon won the admiration of neutrals for climbing back from oblivion through the long grass instead of taking the short cut through a retail park 65 miles away.
Now, thanks to supporters like Xavier Wiggins, they are winning hearts and minds beyond their fan base again.
The Dons Local Action Group reflects nothing but credit on the phoenix club who have found their wings again.