Faced with the prospect of losing club control to outside interests, Dons and other fans rallied behind the Plough Lane Bond. In a short time a staggering £5 million-plus was raised. WDSA talk to two of the PLB instigators Xav Wiggins and Damian Woodward about how it all came about and looking forward to the new stadium.
i) Did you and others go to the Dons Trust SGM on December 9 with the plan of a Plough Lane Bond given that one of the options the DT Chair was pushing at the meeting was that outside investment was the only realistic solution to raise money for the shock £11 million funding shortfall for the stadium construction? Where did the idea for the Bond emanate?
Damian: I don’t think there is a really clear answer. We knew that a lot of fundraising talent within the fan base had largely been ignored for one reason or another and that there were latent concerns around the skill set on the DTB to really understand the dynamics of this kind of process. When it surfaced that there was a major issue, as ever the ideas started floating quite quickly about things we could do ourselves and what the club could still do itself in terms of formal external debt. We knew there was money left in the fan base post SEEDRS, and the idea of loaning more to the club felt like an obvious route to investigate. We were clear at the SGM we were going to raise the clear concerns that not all routes had been properly investigated and the bond suggestion was simply the label around asking people if they would be prepared to lend. The next day, Xav borrowed my Survey Monkey login, put together some questions, floated them around the group and bang – we sent it out to anyone and everyone we could think of. Almost 1,400 responses (of whom around 300 people had said they wouldn’t give more) gave us the platform to push forward with confidence that we had a good chance of raising £3m.
(ii) Give us a sense of what you and others felt about the club’s suggestion of seeking outside investors and diluting the fans-ownership model of AFC Wimbledon? Do you see a time when there will be outside investment of the club in the future?
Xav: We seem to have grown embarrassed about our DNA over the years. We never used to speak about budget. We now scrutinise the fanciful “budget league table”. As a fans club, we grew more distant from the decision maker(s) than we were under Sham (Sam Hammam). We had drifted apart. I really don’t want to decry the amazing work they and others have done and do and we must also remind ourselves they do what they do with their hearts in absolutely the right place. But bloody hell, what a gulf had developed. So no, I wasn’t surprised at the whispers leading up to the meeting. That fan ownership could so easily be thrust out there as THE option was not a surprise. I thank them for waking up the Wimbledon in me and others. I am fine with outside investment, just not outside control. Perhaps the club and Trust might have a little more respect for what fan ownership means in the future. It better had. The last few weeks have changed the game, for ever. The way the bond was organised perfectly highlights the strength and weakness of the current Dons Trust model. The Bond’s success demonstrates we’ve specialist knowledge among our fan base, but not where we need it. How do you see the Dons Trust Board developing to meet the demands of an established League One club, yet being able to draw on the expertise of others?
(iii) How was the PLB suggestion received by the club, did it need much persuading/prompting and what were your expectations of how much the Bond could attract?
Damian: I think after the initial ‘we don’t believe this will work’ and ‘we don’t have the time to do this’, we have been well supported. As the momentum grew, you could feel and see both the belief and support grow. Our research had given us good confidence of raising around £3m, however we decided to be ambitious and change put the target to £5m which we knew was the real game changing amount. Looking back (even though we are still open for business!) the key accelerator to £5m was the fantastic leafleting outreach and the external PR campaign led by Niall Couper and supported with around £20K of pro-bono work from Rosie Holden at the agency Cake. To date around 65% of bonds have come from the survey and the rest from other fans (whether Wimbledon or otherwise).
(iv) So the PLB has well surpassed £5 million and has been hailed an outstanding success. Where is the club now placed to fully fund the Plough Lane Stadium. How has the Bond’s success improved the chances of attracting either a commercial loan and/or ground sponsorship to get the fund raising over the line?
Xav: It has changed the game. As simple as that. I can’t comment here on the bigger picture but every designer, every administrator, every leafleter, every media person, every investor has played their part in the long term sustainability of the club. Incredible work from so many. We have been approached by several clubs and organisations asking for help and guidance. That is testimony to what everyone has achieved. Of course, the PLB has lowered the amount we need. And the cost we have to shoulder is less than it would have been. My view is that the intangible impact is even more significant. We have shown what a body of fans can do. We feel engaged again. We have been challenged once more, this time from within, and have risen up with flying colours. Ask the people with bite marks from dogs; with torn knuckles from the evil enemy (letterboxes); those who bellowed “earn up to 4%” outside train stations etc . A Fans Club? Well, we are now.
Damian: Still to be confirmed, however we know the stadium will get completed under fan control through a further mix of external debt and probably using some of the unused equity (around £4m) which was left over from SEEDRS. More to come here soon I hope!
(v) Does the Coronavirus pandemic now threaten efforts to seal the deal (secure more funding) and indeed the possibility that the rest of the season may be cancelled. While on that coronavirus subject with government moves to provide £100 billion of funding for small and medium sized businesses ‘at close to bank rate’, would AFC Wimbledon and the ground fund be eligible for one of these low-interest loans?
Damian: No idea on this one tbh. I know we are looking at things like insurance cover to understand if that plays a part, however it is clear there will need to be a number of ways football clubs will need to be considered in any sort of support the government, or indeed football bodies, can offer.
Xav: Wouldn’t that option of government loans be nice? I have no idea but in the spirit of “We Are Wimbledon, we can do anything” we must make sure we ask. Coronavirus won’t be a problem for ever but I really don’t know. I guess lenders still need to lend.
(vi) Another significant part of the success of the Bond was its marketing, PR and presentation. How much work went into devising the campaign and can you talk about the importance of ex-players and celebrity fans (Gibson, Scales, West, e.g) lending their support for the campaign?
Xav: There was so much. 1850 roads. 40 train stations. Endless vox pops. Loads of different copy. Most main print and broadcast media covering the story. We all drove each other on and there was nothing more motivating than seeing the totaliser edging up and then steaming ahead. So many anecdotes. So much awareness from the public achieved by the marketing. I could write a book or certainly a few chapters on the efforts. What I learned was that we can all do something. Whether it is the resilience to leaflet a couple of hundred roads or the sheer guts to badger commuters on their morning journey into London. I also have to pay enormous tribute to Woody and Charlie Talbot. I thought I knew them well. But I never ever knew how good they were. The intelligence and energy have been on a different level. We all had to keep tunnel vision when a lot of the time we just wanted to kick the cat. They along with people like Graeme Price, Marc Jones and the army alongside need to play a major role in this club moving forward. I have a personal rule where I am genuinely impressed by someone if they do stuff I feel I could NEVER do. I have encountered these people right across the campaign on an almost hourly basis at the peak.
Damian: The external PR campaign for which Niall Couper held the reigns (from his sickbed!) and the PR launch event and outreach Cake drove engaged many more players, pretty much all the major national TV and print press and global coverage which again really gave more weight and sense of support and focus to be a part of something amazing.
(vii) How did WAW come about, the thought behind it, the take up and how much it has raised at the time of writing to the PLB?
Damian: The We Are Wimbledon Fund was initially brought together from memory around 2103/14. It was clear we were going to start struggling to maintain our league position without incremental donations from the wider fan base given (in the main), Kingsmeadow was maxed out in terms of what revenues it could generate. Ivor Heller championed it from the football club side and Jane (Lonsdale), Zoe (Linkson), Xavier (Wiggins), Graeme (Price) and a few others got together to start a big direct debit push with a lofty ambition of raising £400k extra per season. We have certainly raised well over £600k since the launch, even with some pretty fallow years of activity (bar my Resurrection T-Shirt launch). We had all stepped away from it as an organised body (left with the football club) around 2016/17, but credit to Vicki Lowndes, when Wally Downes joined she helped a few of us pick up the mantle and get it back up and running. We have just updated the website, have a new purpose (raising money for a wider range of projects) and are about to launch the new Resurrection range which should raise around £35k.
(viii) Finally, as a long-standing fan what are your expectations for a long-awaited return to Plough Lane in light of the Bond and further financing and does this intervention by the group of fans change how the Dons Trust will operate/communicate in the future?
Xav: It has to and it will. We might have evolution, not revolution but this was the biggest wake up call of them all. We were utterly disenfranchised. All asleep at the wheel. Communication was seen as a “nice to have” not a “must have”. Transparency was for the small stuff. Engagement was not deemed important. I see us getting the ground built and a much stronger club emerging with 365 days of revenue at the heart of our community. I see “success” adopting a definition that might not be for other clubs but is for us. Where success means striving to be the best we can be by behaving in the right way to our own people and to those from our communities. In the medium and long term I see a lot of upside around things like the East Stand development. I see people at the top of the club having more real respect for the opinions of us all. But we must never ever fall asleep again. We can’t just watch football. We all share responsibility for bringing our great club to the widest possible audience. What we have shown over the last few weeks is what fun hard graft can be when it results in such a positive thing.
[The Plough Lane Bond fans’ interview was first published in the March-April 2020 issue of the Wombles Downunder fanzine. Details on how you can subscribe to Wombles Downunder.]