“You have got oat milk in your coffee rather than cow’s milk. That caused more controversy than anything else.”
Forest Green Rovers are not the most traditional of football clubs, preferring to establish their own conventions in their quest to do things ‘another way’, writes Tom Howe.
In the 10 years since green industrialist Dale Vince took over as chairman, Forest Green have said goodbye to their reputation as the Conference’s longest-serving side, made their Football League debut and now sit on the edge of English football’s third tier.
Twice reprieved from relegation out of the Conference due to the demotion of other clubs, Vince has transformed Forest Green, based in the sleepy Gloucestershire town of Nailsworth, into the world’s first vegan football club, while installing numerous eco-friendly innovations to their New Lawn ground and launching revolutionary kits and shin pads made from bamboo.
“It is not a traditional football club these days,” chuckled supporters club board member Phil Doble when speaking with The Independent this week. “Personally, I love it. I think it is absolutely superb. “The supporters’ club gets applications for membership from some of the most weird and wonderful places in the world. They are following veganism, or sustainability, or LGBT but they have developed an interest in the club due to the quirkiness of our chairman.
“It has been fascinating since he took charge. For some traditionalists the change has been a slightly difficult one to adapt to. You have got oat milk in your coffee rather than cow’s milk. That caused more controversy than anything else. Overall, the vast majority are very much behind him.
“He pioneers a different way of doing football. Any part of the ground was accessible to anyone, so if you wanted to go and have a word with Dale you could wonder up and do so. As the club has got bigger and moved into the league, there is more need to generate revenue that has had to change unfortunately.”
Wheels are in motion regarding a move to a new stadium, dubbed the Eco Park, on land near junction 13 of the M5 as designed by architect Zaha Hadid.
With an initial capacity of 5,000, the Eco Park would be sited in parkland where some 500 trees and 1.8km of new hedgerows would be planted as part of its promise to become the greenest football stadium in the world.
Plans also include a car park for 1,700 vehicles and two grass training pitches.
Doble said: “I am very much for it. For nostalgic reasons it will be a shame to move out of Nailsworth. It is tiny and has a population of around 6,000. The club has always been very much associated with the town. Forest Green is the suburb, if you like, of Nailsworth.
“There is a slight edge to have to move out of Nailsworth but, on the other hand, if the club are going to move forward it has to generate more income to drive future success.
“If it is about ambition, it does have to think about moving to a stadium where success is a little bit easier.
“It takes a little while to get in and a little while to get out and grinds Nailsworth to a bit of a hault.
“Because Nailsworth is so small, our main fan base is spread into Stroud, what we call the Five Valleys and up to Gloucester.
We are getting closer to our fanbase (by moving). Surveys have said that most people travel in from Stonehouse, Gloucester and Stroud rather than Nailsworth.”
The move is far from a done deal, despite Stroud District Council granting outline planning consent last month, having originally rejected the plans amid concerns over noise, traffic, and impact on landscape.
It is believed, however, that the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government will oversee an inquiry into the proposal before the bulldozers can move in.
“It has been fantastically political and still is,” continued Doble. “It has been a pretty close run thing as far as the local planning committee is concerned.
“Our old labour MP was very much involved with the club. Now we have a new MP who is conservative. Dale has always been pretty solidly labour. He puts banners up on his headquarters with a big EU flag, that kind of thing. He does not shy away from controversy and maybe he can polarise opinion because of that.
“There are a few more bumps in the road and I gather that the outline permission could be called up to be decided by the secretary of state. It is definitely not out of the woods yet.”
Doble continued: “(The fanbase) are generally very much in favour of it. We have certainly got some who are sresistant and that is quite a vocal resistance as well. I think it goes a lot deeper, maybe they are not for the chairman?
“We have, over the last couple of games, had a loud but small minority.
“The club have tried to engage and set up meetings to find out what it is all about but they have not wanted to so we are a little bit none the wiser.
“The players have three stars on the back of their shirts, one of them coloured in. The ambition has always been to get to the Championship. League One would get the second star coloured in and the Championship the third star. If you were to ask Dale, he would say his ambition is to have the club as a Championship side.
“You are capped on what you can spend relative to your turnover. The club need to generate income to be able to fund the team so, in a sense, you just have to grow.”
In a race for promotion on the pitch, and a battle to progress off it, there are sure to be plenty more twists and turns in the journey of the smallest settlement to have homed a Football League club.