Jilly Cooper is a regular in the boardroom, the chairman is a multimillionaire who used to live in a converted car on a hill, Vivienne Westwood cheered the club on in the game that sealed promotion, every player eats a vegan diet and a robot cuts the grass.
Another Way is the aptly named road that winds down to a stadium tucked away in a pocket of the Cotswolds, surrounded by fields and best reached via the help of satellite navigation. Even then it is hard to believe one is on the right track; a handmade sign warns about the danger of cows crossing before a football ground springs up almost from nowhere.
Located near Stroud, eight miles off junction 13 on the M5, The New Lawn will be something of an eye-opener for League Two supporters who have never ventured to these parts before. “When I came here to sign I couldn’t believe the roads to get there,” says Christian Doidge, Forest Green’s top scorer last season. “It says you’re half a mile away, then suddenly you just see it. It is, essentially, that little club on the hill.”
That is how Forest Green Rovers have become known over time and it is easy to see why. With a population of around 6,000, the town of Nailsworth is the smallest place to be home to a Football League team, which makes Saturday’s visit of Barnet a landmark game in more ways than one for a club that spent the previous 127 years knocking around the non-league scene, often in the lower reaches.
The catalyst for change on and off the pitch is a self-confessed former “hippy” by the name of Dale Vince. Founder of the green company Ecotricity and worth an estimated £100m, the 55-year-old local businessman came to Forest Green’s rescue in 2010. He has pumped millions in since, transforming the team’s fortunes as well as the club’s image by investing heavily in players and promoting an environmental sustainability message that underpins everything, right down to the lawnmower that cuts the pitch.
“That’s the ET Mow or, as we call it, ‘The Mowbot’,” says Adam Witchell, the groundsman, pointing to a piece of equipment that is to all intents another member of staff. “It’s a robotic mower, it works from satellites and there’s a wire that runs around the pitch, so it has a perimeter. It will cut the whole pitch in three days. If there is ever a problem and it gets stuck, it sends a text to my phone to tell me.
“It’s all eco – it works off solar and windpower – and it charges itself. You just turn it on and it’s away. If anything gets in its way, for example if a human was stood there, it would go up to the human and bump it slightly – not hard – and then it will stop and go in another direction. Then it will come back two hours later to the same area because it knows that it needs to cut every blade of grass. It’s a fantastic machine and I think more clubs should use one.”
Mark Cooper, Forest Green’s manager, is giving the guided tour and takes us into the kitchen next, in the main stand, where Em Franklin, the club chef, is busy preparing food – but not any old food. The players and staff follow a strict vegan diet at Forest Green Rovers and no animal products of any description are on sale on matchday. Forget burgers, hot dogs and bacon rolls; this is Q-Pie territory.
“The Q-Pie is brilliant – people love it,” says Franklin, smiling. “It’s a shortcrust pastry base, puff pastry lid and it’s Quorn with soya béchamel white sauce, with thyme and leeks. It’s full and it’s filling because my portions are hearty! We’re doing a pasty as well this year – that’s something new. Because we’re vegan doesn’t mean it’s all lettuce and lentils.”
Asked what she thinks away supporters will make of it this season when they see the menu, Franklin says: “It’s a gift for them with their chants – they come up with some corkers, and that’s fabulous. I’m in the kitchen during the match and I always say: ‘What are they singing today?’
“The thing is, people don’t like to feel they’re being dictated to – and this isn’t in any way dictating to anybody. This is what’s on offer. And, more importantly, this is why vegan food is on offer – as a good health initiative and also an environmental one. There are fabulous statistics about the impact that not eating meat has on your carbon footprint. And a plant-based diet is so good for us – people are aware of that now.”
Food sales are up considerably and the players have also bought into a regime that more and more professional footballers are following through choice these days. Cooper, who led Forest Green into the Football League in his first season in charge, has been converted and describes the food as “brilliant”. Yet the 48-year-old also recognises that what Forest Green are doing is unusual, so much so that he makes a point of discussing food with prospective signings.
“I’m just honest with them,” he says. “I say: ‘Look, don’t come here and expect chicken and eggs after training. We’re vegan. And it’s vegan if we go to a hotel before a game.’ So if we signed a 28-year-old player who has been having chicken, or omelette or egg on toast, for the last 15 years, he has to buy that himself or he has whatever we’re having – jacket potatoes, beans, Quorn bolognaise, pasta.”
Recruitment is a challenge for Forest Green irrespective of the menu, largely because of the club’s location. Cooper admits they have to “pay a bit more” to attract players from London and beyond and reels off a list of names that would have gone elsewhere otherwise. Vince’s deep pockets help and not just in relation to salaries.
“We have a hostel in Stroud that the chairman has built,” Cooper explains. “Well, we call it a hostel but it’s like an apartment block. We’ve got 10 lads in there, so they stay there during the week and go home after a game when they get a day off. It’s a good facility and they pay a minimal amount towards it.”
Cooper, a likable character, also knows the Forest Green of old. He was a midfielder at the club in 2001-02, when they were part-time, fighting relegation and playing in a ramshackle stadium in front of attendances that rarely reached four figures. Cooper shakes his head at the contrast between then and now, and says promotion to the Football League would have been unthinkable without Vince’s involvement.
Yet he also knows that not everyone has warmed to their story.
“When I played here everybody loved Forest Green because we weren’t a threat – friendly little club, part-time, can’t compete. But because we could compete last year and we were a threat, we had a lot of animosity towards us which made it even more difficult.”
Although Forest Green are everyone’s favourite club in the environmental world – the fashion designer Westwood’s presence at Wembley for the play-off final is explained by her friendship with Vince and their shared ecological beliefs – the club had more enemies than friends in the non-league game last season.
“Hated,” Cooper says. “It’s the chairman, money bags, the vegan thing, it’s where we are. And let’s make no bones about it, when you analyse it, it’s jealousy. You could feel it when we went to games. As soon as we arrived the moneybags shout would come out, or if I’m in the dugout that’s all people shout. If I went to watch another game, the opposition fans would say: ‘Who are you buying today?’”
Vince has not been shy in spending. In April the Football Association published how much clubs paid to agents in fees between 2 February 2016 and 31 January 2017. The figures showed Forest Green handed over £174,613, more than the rest of the National League put together, higher than every League Two club with the exception of Portsmouth and more than Burton Albion in the Championship.
Cooper accepts those agent fees were “too much” but he also says that spending money does not guarantee success and makes the point that life will be different in League Two because of the Financial Fair Play rules. Vince could, in theory, find a legitimate way around that by providing more funds as a benefactor but Cooper says it would need “an awful lot of money to make the budget competitive at the top end of our league”.
Either way, the feeling at Forest Green is that the sort of hostility directed towards them last season will start to fade now they are off the non-league circuit. “I think in the Football League everyone will be a bit more grown-up and understand that it’s a little club who’ve achieved their dreams,” says Doidge, who was a policeman and a basketball player for Wales before he tried his hand at being a centre-forward.
One thing is for sure: Vince will not be bothered in the slightest by any derogatory remarks. He enjoys ruffling a few feathers and has no desire to follow the crowd. Informed that he had to have a shirt and tie on to get into the boardroom at one non-league club, Vince got the Forest Green secretary to send an email for the corresponding fixture saying that the dress code at The New Lawn prevented anyone from wearing that sort of attire. “He’s a one-off,” says Cooper, smiling. “But he’s brilliant to work with.”
Vince’s vision for the club has generated plenty of publicity for Forest Green as well as energy. Interest has soared on the back of their success at Wembley, where they beat Tranmere Rovers 3-1 in May, and it is a measure of how far the club has come that they were able to sign a player on loan from Chelsea this summer. Bradley Collins, a 20-year-old goalkeeper, is part of a young, vibrant squad that Cooper will encourage to play freeflowing football.
Excitement among supporters has been building for a while. Season-ticket sales are up by 20%, with the average attendance predicted to rise from 1,700 to more than 2,000, helped by bigger away followings and derby matches against Cheltenham, Yeovil, Newport and Swindon. They have also worked hard to try to engage with the next generation – Vince gives away 400 shirts to local, year-three primary school children each season and under-11s are able to watch for free.
Further afield another fanbase is emerging. “We’ve been shipping merchandise out all over the world, sending it to Canada, Australia and America,” Paula Brown, the club’s commercial manager, says. “I think that’s people who are thinking about the environmental impact that we’re having and the ethos that the chairman has and they want to back us on that. They can’t come to matches but they want to support us by buying a shirt.”
Whether Jilly Cooper is the owner of a replica kit is unclear, but the best-selling author has spent plenty of time around Forest Green – she lives locally – to help with research for her next novel, called Tackle. “For the last year she’s been coming to the games,” says Mark Cooper, who has an invitation to her garden party on his desk. “She’s come to the training ground to see us and goes in the boardroom, taking notes.”
Forest Green’s story may also have a few more chapters before it is finished. Vince’s long-term ambition is to take the club into the Championship and last November they unveiled plans to move to a new stadium, close to the motorway and almost entirely made of wood. What happens between now and then is anyone’s guess but all the ingredients are there, inside and outside the kitchen, for something a little bit different from anything the Football League has seen before.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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