By Chris Slavin
Watching Barry Fuller lift the League Two play-off trophy on TV in a remote South African village eventually led to a completely different challenge for Mat Haylock – as retail manager at AFC Wimbledon.
For those supporters who may have missed the interview with Mat in Saturday's match day programme, this is reproduced in full below.
Mat Haylock has swapped his "amazing experience" as a "lions tour guide" in Africa for spending endless hours in the club shop preparing stock for Christmas – but he's certainly not regretting the decision!
"I was over in Africa for two and a half years," said Mat. "I used to volunteer to help with animals on my holidays, and I got involved in volunteering with lions. It was a breed-and-release programme in South Africa. I left my job over here and became known as a 'lions tour guide', walking tourists around with lions up to a year old. Once the lions got to two, they would be released back into the wild.
"I learned quickly what not to do around them! It was the most amazing experience, and I have hundreds of photographs that I still can't look at because I really miss the lions. People think I'm mad for leaving it behind, but unless you've lived out there in the middle of nowhere for two and a half years, you really can't judge it.
"The decision to come home was made just after Wembley. I'd been living out there for a year and a half and was feeling a bit homesick. My boss suggested I get the equivalent of Sky TV. I got access to Sky Sports News for one hour a day! On 30 May 2016 I switched over to Sky Sports News and saw Barry Fuller lifting the trophy. I turned to my girlfriend and said, 'I have to go home, I should be there!' And a year later I did come home."
Before going out to South Africa, Mat spent seven years as a volunteer with AFC Wimbledon. He was part of the merchandise team, which would involve him spending five days a week sorting out mail orders in the run-up to Christmas. He was also a stretcher-bearer and helped with pitch maintenance. Now, after accepting the full-time role as retail manager, opening up the club shop five days a week, Mat is thankful for the legacy created by volunteers, but he has his own plans for taking things forward.
"I'm really enjoying it so far. It's taken me long hours to get the shop up to the condition I want it to be in, but that's not a criticism of anyone. The fact that it's been kept going for so many years being run by a small team of volunteers is phenomenal. The initial challenge was tidying the place up, because there was a lot of clutter. I've had to reorganise the stock area to create space for more merchandise.
"The storage area in the club shop is small. So when you get quotes from companies at a reasonable price for 1,000 items, we don't have the space to take advantage. However, the new CRM makes it quicker for me to sort things out because it counts the stock for you. You can prepare in adequate time for when stock is running low.
"I want to have a bigger range of goods and to change merchandise regularly so that we don't have the same tired things. We will still retain old favourites, but some goods will be available only online. With the new click-and-collect service, we're going to have a marquee for people to collect items. We'll still have samples on display of what we're selling, but the items will only be available to buy online.
"It's great to be back doing something I love. After leaving my office job to do something completely different, I had to come back and do something I was passionate about. I couldn't have worked in an office again!"
"In my opinion, we need more merchandise for kids. In the run-up to Christmas we'll be getting things in like Dons stationery sets, sticker sets, badge sets and rucksacks. Children are the future of the club, and I think it's important to have more merchandise to reflect that."
Please note that the club shop will be closed tomorrow (Tuesday).
The club shop is open four days a week (plus matchdays) with the following times:
Tuesday: 10am-3pm (please note this has changed from 4 pm), plus 5.00pm - 7.30pm on match days)
Saturday: Closed (11am-2.45pm & 5-5.30pm on matchdays)