Unless you’ve spent the last five years living in a cave you’ve probably heard of Forest Green Rovers.
Despite splitting time between the fourth and fifth tiers of the game, they’re pretty well known thanks to their strong ethical stances.
Their best known one is their veganism – only vegan meals are served at club facilities – but their ethos runs deeper than just that. All their power is supplied by green energy, electric vehicle charging points are installed at the stadium, and, of course, the pitch is organic.
It’s earned them plaudits from FIFA and even the United Nations, who certified them as carbon neutral. Not one to rest on their laurels however, plans to build a new, carbon-neutral stadium are in the pipeline.
But believe it or not there was a time before Forest Green were the vegan football club. ‘The Rovers’ have been what they are for less than a decade – 10 years ago Forest Green were just that club from the Cotswolds. The longest-serving member of the Conference, playing out of tiny Nailsworth in Gloucestershire, and in dire danger of relegation.
They actually did get relegated that season, but ended up getting a reprieve thanks to Salisbury City entering administration.
In what has become one of football’s What if stories, the same summer they escaped relegation they also came under the stewardship of Dale Vince.
The self-styled Green-Energy Magnate insists he fell into the role; like with all football investors, he says he stepped in just to help keep the club running but found the club had no one else to support them and thus was thrust into the position of owner.
Whatever the case, he took full advantage of his newfound position. The first step was veganism, not really surprising for a vegan owner with total control of how his club was run. The more surprising changes came shortly after.
In the past Forest Green’s crest had been a Barcelona-style shield, but in May 2011 they put the feelers out for changing the club’s crest, and for the 2011/12 season they unveiled a new, circular logo. The sudden inclusion of neon green into the colour scheme was not out of place, but it did hint at what was to come.
The most controversial change came next – for over a century Rovers played in black and white stripes, but for 2012/13 they announced a change to green and black hoops. Unlike the badge, there was no fan consultation for this, and fans reacted as expected.
But all of this has nothing to do with the game of football itself, and in many ways all of the green initiatives are a smokescreen for where Vince has ploughed most of his money, the team.
Success wasn’t overnight, thanks to an awful transfer policy that seemed to revolve around acquiring nothing but strikers, but slowly and surely Forest Green went from Conference passengers to Conference challengers.
Between arriving in the Conference in 1998 and Vince’s takeover, FGR had finished in the top half twice; after Vince’s arrival in 2011, they made the top 10 in three consecutive years.
The following three years would only get better – they made their first playoff appearance in 2015, lost the playoff final in 2016, and went one better in 2017 to make the Football League for the very first time.
The glory days haven’t stopped rolling for Rovers yet either. Their first Football League campaign was unremarkable, but a playoff appearance last year has led into a strong start in 2019-20 that could very well see them go one better come the spring.
Forrest Green have gone from a forgettable non-league team that made up the numbers, to a successful entity both on and off the pitch, but what was the cost of this? Well, everything.
The club of today is unrecognisable from the one of 10 years ago. Not just because of the ethos or even the kits, but because they’re Dale Vince’s walking billboard.
Examine the new badge, introduced shortly after Vince’s takeover. It brought green into the colour palette of the club, specifically neon green. The badge also introduced a new font.
What do that colour and font have in common? They’re both used in the branding of Ecotricity, Vince’s green energy company.
The club also introduced a new identity for fans to embrace, hanging British flags with a black and green colour scheme rather than red, white and blue around the stadium. Incidentally, said black and green flag is also part of Ecotricity’s branding.
Vince has also given over space at the club to the organisation Sea Shepherd, which uses direct action to fight against whaling. Their logo appears on club kits, including a special Sea Shepherd-inspired third kit, and their flags fly at the ground on matchday. There is no benefit to the club with this partnership – all profits from the sales of the third shirt go to Sea Shepherd.
None of this is said to pin a target on Vince or even criticise his initiatives, he is free to run his football club as he pleases, and he is hardly the first owner to use his club to further his interests. He is certainly not a bad owner by any measure – as clubs up and down the nation are run into the ground and milked for profit, Vince pours money into ensuring his team competes and succeeds.
What it does highlight, however, is that everything comes at a price. Forest Green are a world away from what they used to be. They are successful, competitive, and significantly well-known – putting to one side the ethics aspect, the green ethos has been brilliant to Forrest Green from a marketing standpoint.
Rovers are one of the smallest clubs in the Football League, drawing one of the lowest crowds in 2018/19 despite being in the promotion battle. Yet they are now known the world over thanks to their green ethos. Quite often in football, carving out a niche can do more for you than results on the pitch – look, for example, at St. Pauli.
But while setting up charging points and putting solar panels on the roof will hardly affect a fan’s feelings towards the club, the price of Vince’s investment was steeper than that.
Vince didn’t just want his club to espouse a green ethos, he wanted the club’s very essence to be tied to him. One of his first steps, before the organic grass or bamboo kits or Sea Shepherd, was to change the club’s branding so that it tied in with Ecotricity.
At the end of the day, Vince is a businessman. He has a brand he wants to promote, and the club is his vehicle to do so. It is a club with an ethos, but it was burned to the ground so it could be remade in that image, simply adopting the ethos was not enough to satisfy what Vince wanted. Forest Green Rovers is not Forest Green Rovers and has not been since 2011. It is Dale Vince FC.
What reinforces this is the proposed new stadium. The carbon neutrality element is part marketing and part smokescreen – the club is already carbon neutral, after all. Furthermore, The New Lawn – the last remnant of the team Vince purchased in 2010 – has only existed for 15 years. Yet Vince believes they need a way out, even after investing thousands on adding its various green bells and whistles.
So what makes this new stadium more attractive? One need look no further than its proposed location – beside Junction 13 of the M5; eight miles away from the team’s spiritual home in Nailsworth, but almost equidistant between Bristol and Gloucester.
Rumours of the club relocating to Gloucester have swirled for many years, especially since Vince took ownership of the club. The location of this new stadium is perfect for maximising catchment from the area, whose population is four times that of Stroud and whose own team has struggled for many years, and picking up scraps from Bristol, all while not alienating their Cotswolds core.
It is still commutable distance from Nailsworth, but after almost one and a quarter centuries of calling it home, and with the local stadium still being in good condition, losing your club to chase catchment areas will no doubt sting.
Vince helped the club and its fans to realise a dream, but the price of doing so was to have the club fundamentally changed to suit his wishes. Was it worth it? That’s not for me to say, though Rovers fans I’ve spoken to in the past seemed inclined to agree. And why wouldn’t they? Stadiums, crests and kits come and go, but your name on a trophy is forever.
It’s not often we get the privilege of getting what we want with no strings attached. Quite often we have to give before we can take, and football is no exception. Owners have often wanted something in return for signing all the cheques, be it ditching burgers or changing kits or ‘sportswashing’ an oil-rich regime.
As fans, how much of this are we willing to accept? Where do we draw the line between necessary for the club’s health and future, and spitting on a club’s heritage? Or conversely, is ‘heritage’ archaic and overrated, and the ends justify the means?
These are valid questions with no correct answer, and everyone will have their own take.
What is certain, though, is in an era of football where money rules all and Forest Green, Salford, Cardiff and Manchester City reap the rewards, is fans are having to decide where they stand.