Daily Mirror

‘Bond’ fan who had X Fac­tor to help shake and stir the Crazy Gang

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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.

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