BOSSES behind a Southampton youth football club left in near financial ruin after its founder stole thousands of pounds of club funds have thanked the community who rallied around to keep the team afloat.

The new chairman of Redbridge Wanderers Nick Fenn said the club has raised thousands through donations and fundraising events since disgraced founder Chris Thomas gambled away club funds.

The team, based at Lordshill Recreation, were also given new kits and training equipment, worth more than £1,000, by Saints and their sponsors Virgin Media.

The budding young stars also met Saints stars Danny Ings and Jack Stephens, and now ex-Saints striker Charlie Austin, during a once-in-a-life-time training match at the club's state-of-the-art training ground.

Now Mr Fenn, 27, who has recently been appointed as chairman of Wanderers, has paid tribute to those who supported the club following the theft.

It comes after Thomas was given a suspended sentence at Southampton Magistrates' Court this week.

Mr Fenn said: "When it happened we were angry and devastated.

"It was never something I thought would happen. You just don't think it is possible that someone could do that.

"The first thought that came into my head was the faces of the 40-or-so children and having to tell them.

"But the support we have received has been fantastic.

"We set out with the idea of being a community club and off the back of what happened I think we have stepped up to become the club we always wanted to be."

Mr Fenn said the club, who had £3,500 stolen by gambling addict Chris Thomas, had recouped more than £1,000 through a GoFundMe page.

He said the club also held a "brilliant" fundraising day at the Saints Pub, in Millbrook, and was given free access to Tenpin bowling alley, also in Millbrook, with all money raised going to the club.

They will also be due £3,000 in compensation by Thomas, who was ordered to refund the stolen cash as part of his four-month sentence, which was suspended for 12 months.

A big boost came when Saints, working with the Saints Foundation and Virgin Media stepped in to provide kits and equipment for the club, after hearing about their plight.

They invited Redbridge’s under 11 boys (Hawks) and girls (Lionesses) sides to Southampton’s Staplewood training ground to play a match, with Charlie Austin, Danny Ings and Jack Stephens stepping in as mascots.

To make sure Redbridge Wanders Youth looked the part on the day, Virgin Media supplied new kits for the team and also for Redbridge’s boys and girls under 7, 8, 9 and 10 squads.

Southampton also provided 60 new footballs and an array of training equipment.

Virgin Media’s Brand Director, Cilesta Van Doorn, said: “When Virgin Media heard about Redbridge Wanderers recent troubles, we felt we had to do something to help them out.

"What better way to raise their spirits than to let them grace the same turf as their idols in a brand new kit."

Mr Fenn said the club is now going from strength-to-strength, with a new 11-strong committee and coaching tea, including key figures Michaela Forbes, Jody Lee, Kerry Lee and Ashley Forbes – who has since left the club.

This season, the club will run a mixed U12 team, a boys U11 team and a boys U9 team, with around 40 children across the three teams.