Green ethos makes England's Forest Green a big hit worldwide
NAILSWORTH: Forest Green Rovers play in a stadium with a capacity of 5,147 in a rural English town that numbers only a few hundred more in population yet they attract support from all over the world.
“New supporters clubs have recently cropped up in the United States, Germany and Norway,” said Ryan Harmer, the club’s commercial director.
“We have had people here from Australia to watch us, we’ve sold shirts to supporters in Korea, Switzerland, France, the US and just about all the main countries of the world.
"In the past week we’ve had reporters here from China, been on Al Jazeera and ESPN, on German radio stations. In League Two that’s probably unheard of.”
The reason for such widespread interest in the fourth-tier club is not Forest Green's football but the club’s green ethos.
“FIFA say we are the greenest football club in the world,” said Dale Vince, their vegan owner who made Forest Green Rovers unique when he banned all animal products from the New Lawn stadium in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire two years ago.
That was when Forest Green were playing non-league football. Now, thanks to a playoff win at Wembley, they are in the Football League for the first time.
“Before Wembley we had messages of support from 20 different countries. We reached 270 million people around the world with our story that day, and then we played our first Football League game last Saturday it was 300 million,” said Vince before Forest's League Cup debut at home to Milton Keynes Dons in the first round, which they lost 1-0 after extra time on Tuesday.
“We’ve got a totally different appeal, unique. It’s not about the badge.”
The message is painted across the top of one of the stands at The New Lawn: “Sustainability in sport – changing the rules of the game.” Even their address is Another Way.
A Union Flag in dark green, light green and white, rather than red, white and blue, flies at the stadium “to represent a green Britain” said Vince, who also has one of the flags in his private box.
The “world’s first vegan football club” wear green shirts and play on grass that is cut by a solar-powered robotic mower.
There are charging points for electric vehicles outside the main stand, and Vince, a wealthy businessman who owns the eco-friendly energy company Ecotricity, has plans for a new stadium made of fire-retardant wood.
Vince added: “We have a lot of emails from all around the world from people saying, ‘I wish my club did this, it’s a nightmare at our club.’ Also, we engage with an audience of ‘not-quite-football fans’, who follow us because of our left-leaning stance, because we are espousing values they like.
“Some of them say ‘I wasn’t a football fan before but I am now’. Others say ‘You’re now my second club.’ We call them our ‘Crowd in the Cloud’.”
Those fans can tune in to live audio broadcasts of matches, and later this season live video will be available too.
“What they all have in common is an interest in the environment, and we’re bringing them together,” said Vince.
“Supporting this club is like supporting the environment. Football fans are very passionate and if we can get them passionate about the environment that’s a really good thing.”
It also leads to opposition supporters making fun of the club. “I’ve had groups of them shouting ‘Meat! Meat! Meat!” at me, which is a bit of a caveman response,” said Vince.
“But it’s part of football and I’m quite amused by it, especially if it’s witty.” Popular chants include “Where’s your burger van?” and “You can stick your veggie pasty up your arse.”
The “vegan club” label does not mean all the players and staff are vegan, but no meat or dairy products are available to players at training or on match days, nor to fans at home games.
Not that they are complaining. The quality of food is outstanding compared to most football catering, and won the club an award in London last year.
The signature dish of head chef Em Franklin is the Q Pie, with a Quorn, leek and bechamel sauce filling.
Tim Barnard, a supporters trust representative, was as sceptical as anybody when the club announced it was “going veggie” six years ago, a precursor to the vegan ethos introduced in 2015.
“I thought someone was having a joke,” said Barnard. “A lot of people made a lot of noise about having the right to eat meat taken away but over the years sales have gone up and up and the quality is excellent.
"A lot of those who took offence eat at the club and thoroughly enjoy the food, even if it’s been a bit of a culture shock.”