On Saturday, the English league season begins. Amid all the excitement and optimism that comes with the start of the season there is a team playing in the Football League for the first season in their 129-year history. And, that club is very, very different to all of the other 91 clubs in England’s top 4 divisions.
Forest Green Rovers are somewhat of a mystery to many football fans. The name may be somewhat familiar as until this season they had been in the National League (the league below League Two) since 1998, but most wouldn’t even be able to say where they are from. Even fewer would be able to find the place on a map.
Forest Green are from Nailsworth, a town of just 5,800 people in Gloucestershire. Forest Green’s promotion means that Nailsworth replaces Irthlingborough (the home of former league club Rushden & Diamonds) as the smallest town ever to host a Football League club.
Promotion wasn’t a surprise. Forest Green had finished in the top five of the National League for three seasons running, and after losing to Grimsby in the 2015/16 playoff final, beat Tranmere Rovers 3-1 at Wembley in last season’s playoff final to seal their promotion to the Football League.
So, size immediately marks Forest Green down as being a bit different, but that’s far from all.
Forest Green have been awarded by FIFA the title of ‘Football’s Greenest Club’, and are committed to reducing waste and environmental responsibility both on and off the pitch.
The driving force behind all this is club owner and Chairman Dale Vince. Vince founded the renewable-energy company Ecotricity, and has gone from being a hippy to being a businessman worth a reported £100m and was also on the receiving end of what from the outside seems like a truly bizarre court ruling following a divorce many years earlier.
In 2010, Forest Green had only avoided relegation because Chester City went out of existence, and were in financial trouble. They turned to Vince, who after investing enough money to become majority owner, became chairman a few months later. Vince wasn’t really a football fan, but, as a passionate environmentalist, saw an opportunity to use Forest Green to show the world that football and a strong environmental message are not mutually exclusive.
In May last year, Forest Green became the world’s first vegan football club. Players and staff follow vegan diets and no food or drinks containing animal products are on sale at the club’s New Lawn stadium.
Instead of the burgers, hot-dogs and meat pies that are the staples of most football stadium’s food choices, Forest Green offer food like their award-winning Q Pie, which contains Quorn, thyme, leeks and a soya béchamel sauce.
While Forest Green promote a vegan lifestyle, they don’t force it onto people. If you go to their stadium, you can bring your own food if you want. Players can eat non-vegan food away from the stadium. They are also careful not to take themselves too seriously as an April Fool’s joke where they announced that the following season they would play in a broccoli home strip and a carrot away showed.
There is a serious point to all of this. Not only are Forest Green keen to promote veganism for health and environmental sustainability reasons, they are convinced that players adopting a vegan lifestyle has led to a reduction in soft-tissue injuries. It seems like it’s popular with fans too as the club says food sales have quadrupled since they went vegan.
The environmentally-friendly ethos doesn’t end with the food. The club is committed to reducing match-day waste, so all food packaging, cutlery and plates are not-only recyclable but get separated on-site. Cooking oil gets collected by its suppliers and converted into biofuel which powers the farming equipment required to produce the next batch.
Solar panels are dotted around the stadium, which provides about 10% of the power the club uses. The club are always looking at ways to become even more energy-efficient, with things like replacing the floodlights with LEDs in the pipeline. The club also has a fleet of electric cars which are used by players and staff.
Forest Green even changed their kit supplier to one that would use less packaging, and therefore produce less waste. The kit, which transformed the club’s traditional white and black colours into green and black proved so popular that Vince, unlike virtually every other club owner, kept it for another season, meaning that fans didn’t have to pay for another.
It’s not just off the pitch that the club lives up to its eco-friendly ethos. The pitch itself is the only organic football pitch in the world and instead of pesticides, uses a solution made from seaweed to keep the grass healthy.
The pitch is mowed by a ‘mow-bot’, a solar powered robotic lawnmower that uses GPS to mow the pitch. The grass cuttings are collected and composted and the pitch and stadium’s drainage system means that all rainwater is collected and used to water the pitch, which has meant that the club barely uses any water from the mains.
The club still aren’t satisfied with this and have unveiled plans to build a new stadium a few miles away in a new 100-acre eco-park, which will also contain other sports pitches, gyms and conference facilities. Keeping with their carbon-neutral ethos, the stadium will be made from sustainably-sourced wood.
Whereas sustainability has been the theme around the club, there is a question mark as to how sustainable the team’s league status will be. The remote location of the club means that Forest Green have to pay more in order to attract players. At lower-league levels players are unlikely to uproot their families to go and play for a club far from home, so Vince has built an apartment block for players to live in for a few days a week.
In April, the FA published a list of agents fees paid by clubs from February 2016 to January 2017. In that time, Forest Green paid nearly £175,000 to agents, which was more than the rest of the National League combined, more than 23 of the 24 clubs in League Two and even beat the spending of Championship side Burton Albion.
The Football League has financial fair play rules which will mean that Forest Green can’t just use Vince’s money to move up the divisions. Being from such a small town means that attendances are low. Last season, Forest Green’s average attendance was 1700, which only ranked 10th in the National League and only two League Two clubs had lower. The prospect of games against teams from the surrounding area like Cheltenham and Swindon should boost attendances.
Dale Vince’s ambition is to see Forest Green in the Championship. They have a long way to go in order to get there; their first step should be to consolidate their league status, but whatever happens, Forest Green are a very different club to any that have played in the league before.