Deep in the obscure Gloucestershire countryside – specifically the quaint Cotswold town of Nailsworth of a mere 6,000 inhabitants – The New Lawn, overlooking – atop the rolling Stroud Valleys – the quarter from which its club’s name is derived, lies whirring, motoring and chuntering away on an almost 24/7 basis. Preparing for a Vanarama National League play-off semi-final second leg on Sunday afternoon which will likely attract the largest attendance the United Kingdom’s first organic pitch has ever witnessed, discounting the ever-ravenous BT Sport audience, with rooftop and ground-based solar panels gathering sufficient energy from the recently murky British skies to power the demands of such a clash, the club’s kitchen preparing solely vegan produce for the generally supportive local public and one of only two ‘mow-bots’ in the footballing world trimming the early May grass to automated perfection for the twenty-two individuals on the brink of a Wembley final, Forest Green Rovers are unlike other club – non-league or otherwise.
Chairman Dale Vince (central, first row in the above squad photo) is the individual to whom these decidedly non-conformist measures can be attributed; himself the renewable energy mogul of company Ecotricity, who sponsor the club’s shirts, provide the energy at The New Lawn and have generally transformed what was once a sleepy county league outfit until 1975, a rapidly developing regional division cause through the late 1970’s, 1980’s and a majority of the 1990’s and a Conference Premier side who continually flirted with relegation for over a decade – 1998 to 2010 – prior to his arrival in the club’s hour of need. Was his an opportunistic purchase, sighting a model upon which to impose personal ethical and business beliefs, or can he be valued as a genuine supporter and local entrepreneur aiming to set things right, both in terms of FGR and football in general? Do Rovers deserve their potential position in the Football League, come the possible event of a Sunday victory, followed by what would be a 14th May Wembley battle with Tranmere Rovers? Should we, in short, agree with their principles in what is a complicated and totally unparalleled study of contradictory yet currently successful internal tactics, or condemn them as another rurally-based club to intrude upon their current stage, akin to North Ferriby United, Whitehawk or Hungerford Town, each the profiteers of intense entrepreneurial investment belying their comparatively minor parish populations – each fewer than 6,000, Brighton district Whitehawk aside – and sparse historical achievements?
Perhaps, before I delve my argumentative eye too deep, I should admit I would peruse the situation a little less sympathetically provided Vince, ever the East Anglian revolutionary – as effervescent a character in his staunchly pro-renewables and liberally vegan stance in a manner fellow Norfolk product and transnational human rights activist Thomas Paine would have been proud of – wasn’t the fundamental factor to The Little Club On The Hill’s (as they are affectionately renowned) success, or if my deep-rooted Rovers affections from a Football Manager Handheld 2012 save – where I took them to the Premier League in the matter of ten seasons – could be forgotten. Unfortunately, these facts remain, and my opinion, as unbiased as I will attempt to mould it over the course of an informative and though-provoking writing and editing process for me, and a reading ordeal for you, could take some persuading from an accommodating stance of what Vince has cast in the favourably – for Ecotricity, if not first team manager Mark Cooper’s playing tactics - windy Cotswold climes from meagre circumstances to self-made riches and club-bound accomplishment.
That is without mentioning, of course, the millions which have undoubtedly been required to fund the rejuvenation of what must be largely deemed, consenting to the circumstances, ambitious upstarts from a town so modest as to be only 25% larger than my village, which for those otherwise unacquainted with activities at Talking Points HQ (welcome, if so), is Ringmer, admittedly one of the largest villages by population in the south-east, but only boasting a non-league club 10 steps deep in the English football pyramid. Allowing for the alternating fortunes of local economies in producing self-made millionaires as the lush Gloucestershire valleys, through which the River Frome bubble, can point to, can the difference of five divisional tiers, and I believe 126 positions by the route Ringmer FC would have to take, be tolerated as a mere 1,146 parish inhabitants, according to the 2011 census, between the likes of Ringmer and Nailsworth? Clearly not. But that is not where this moral siege will not be won, as unfortunately, we have to accept how areas similar to Nailsworth will realise apparent potential in fits and patches throughout a history as long as FGR’s – in which, interestingly, they have assumed seven different aliases in an extraordinary 128 years dominated by district competition – exploiting, and in turn being exploited by, the countlessly irresponsible businessmen whose false pretences are soon discovered.
Rather, it is in comparison to sides that toil with inexorable ardour for both the sport and their local communities, Lewes, Saffron Walden Town, Dorchester Town and Dulwich Hamlet – the former trio of which have populations, as towns, at least triple that of Nailsworth, whilst boasting a collective 30 years more of Victorian blood, sweat and tears than The Greens – that the fairness of Vince’s, and his predecessors’ investment, comes into question. Playing in the Isthmian Division One South – or English eighth tier, Lewes – the Rooks – would require four full seasons of consecutive league-surpassing funding and consequent achievement to reach the brink of a Conference Premier play-off semi-final, while the Bloods – Saffron Walden – at step nine in the Eastern Counties League Premier League, would take half a decade to match Rovers, Dorchester (the Magpies) a mere three terms starting from the Southern League Premier Division and Hamlet just the three, providing their nous and heart wasn’t ousted yet again by Margate, Whitehawk, Bognor Regis and the rest of the royally minted clique. These crimes, which directly impact those at truly supporter-orientated clubs, spare communities who happen to be in the vicinity of hijacked operational abodes – A.K.A. grounds – the strife of seasons of deep-rooted malaise, remorse and cynicism; instead enthusing them with the periodically inescapable paradox of glee and expectation as skilled ex-professional arrives after skilled ex-professional, ultimately dissuading large swathes of individuals in these fits of ‘inspiration’ from the reality of the sport, even society. Why, then, having strived for one respectable season after another, are the residents of Lewes, Saffron Walden, Dorchester and Dulwich – all beautiful areas in their own respects – being denied such glory? Is there ambition non-existent, is their internal framework faulty, or is it simply that they are being domestically outgunned by unsustainable finances? It doesn’t take much pondering.
There is, however, an undeniable romance, dare I say je ne sais quoi, to the Rovers story in recent seasons. Vince’s tenure has certainly been a polarising one of significant contradictions; lining the generally favourable introduction of a vegan manifesto with funding beyond what many of their Conference Premier opposition – including Torquay, Macclesfield and York, amongst other former Football League propositions – can muster, and investments in former Ligue 1 midfielder Fabien Robert, defender Drissa Traoré, central midfielder Liam Noble attacker Keanu Marsh-Brown and centre-back Dale Bennett - a quartet with 151 appearances’ worth of League One experience – with increasing the presence of renewable energy systems around the ground. Even the manner in which Vince has revolutionised the style of the club; adapting from lower-half strugglers in an outdated 2000’s system to divisive proponents of ethical environmentally-minded actions, emblazoned with the cause even on their chests, seems excusable. He has changed the course of a 128-year-old marker of local history, yet little opposition has come his way; surely speaking volumes about his affable character and niche chairman decisions, which if anything I learnt from an email interview with Lewes chairman Stuart Fuller as part of my Business GCSE coursework, is vital to non-league clubs as marketing hubs. Anti-establishment vitriol is now an esteemed pillar of the club’s structure, opposing theoretically every aspect of modern football – the dictatorship of foreign owners lacking even an inch of integrity in their profit siphoning, the endless waste, both in terms of finance and energy, at clubs so blinded by commercialisation they believe they hold the earth in their hands, and the non-existent ethical stance assumed by unquestioned individuals whose ambition overpowers their very being – with one minor flaw.
I say one; you could argue their flaws to be many. Similarly, minor is in the loosest sense of the term when evaluating the partly hypocritical Forest Green project. Put simply, Vince’s is a green empire established on credible morals, yet undermined in some aspects by his exploitation of the decisive role of funding at Rovers’ tier – one which pits historically semi-professional outfits against mainly city-based professional set-ups who would give anything at a Football League return. The odds are rigged in the Conference Premier, and have forever been, by literal changing fortunes. I would certainly argue, with it being the foreseeable gate between endless semi-professionalism, often disparaged as meaningless, and utopian professionalism, in the sense of the considerable pay packets for both players and directors in the event of their EFL return or arrival, that it is both an insufferable league in which to habituate in respects of its competition, but one that is, in turn, fairly simple to discover loopholes in after many years of service. Primarily, chairmen will have to target a season in which to strike; who is paying what, what state are the relegated clubs in, are the promoted clubs in a similar position to us, and with 99-point champions Lincoln City removed from the equation for the freefalling Leyton Orient, degraded from a proudly historic family to a Francesco Becchetti-ruined shadow of former glories, not to mention either Hartlepool, in scarily similar circumstances to Orient, or Newport, not long ago a step five side, taking the place of Tranmere, Forest Green or Dagenham & Redbridge – the losing duo of which from the play-offs I would certainly tip for automatic promotion next season - the opening appears significant in 2017/18. If the water is good – to be absolutely cynical here – bumper investment in playing budgets should be expected, something that surely came to fruition with the influx of EFL assets this season in deepest, most picturesque Gloucestershire.
This is not Rovers’ first bite of the bittersweet cherry of potential professionalism, however. Just last season, having accrued a record 89 points to finish second (well clear of third-placed Braintree with 81 points, yet dramatically trailing comparative megaliths Cheltenham on 101), and in deposing fifth-placed play-off semi-final opponents Dover, they assured themselves of a Wembley showdown with Grimsby Town, where for a brief second-half period, 2-1 down after Marsh-Brown’s 60th-minute effort, they harboured serious extra-time ambitions for a Football League place – only to be denied by a clinical added-time third from the Mariners. The season prior, they had lost their play-off semi-final against eventual play-off victors Bristol Rovers as fifth-placed challengers, a finish itself preceded by three highly commendable consecutive 10th-placed returns under the intoxication of Vince’s peculiarly unifying investment.
Speaking objectively, would this debate be far vaster and more divisive, given rather than Vince, a fellow advocate of sustainable energy from Arabia, China or Russia, was in charge of the relatively miniscule Gloucestershire proposition? Is his character and ethnic background his ultimate advantage in what is currently an amply harmonious working environment that has produced, when ignoring the ploughed finances, astounding results, and are they the personable factors which delivered him to favour amongst the admittedly few locals in what had the definite potential to be a conflict of controversy? Given the high-profile cases of the aforementioned Becchetti, ally Massimo Cellino at Leeds, the Al Hasawi family at Nottingham Forest, Roland Duchatelet at Charlton, Balaji & Venkatesh Rao of Venky’s at Blackburn and Tony Fernandes at Queens Park Rangers, who have been washed with the same brush of disgrace as Vince easily could have, why has the Stroud-based businessman not be targeted in such cases of public condemnation? His actions, objectively, and when translated into an immediately biased argument, appear only equivalent to what these international magnates have performed; creating new club identities by casting aside history, churning hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds into running costs each season and placing faith in largely unproven quantities as managers. The latter fact may be disputed, certainly with current manager Mark Cooper’s arrival in 2016, not to mention the success of Vince’s trusted employees Dave Hockaday and Ady Pennock, but he has most certainly enforced an unopposed entity upon the club in the form of a new badge, kit, (planned) ground and technologically advanced, vegan philosophy, and has invested significantly to achieve both this structure and the first-team accomplishment which had evaded them for many years, unrealistic as it was in their former guise as effectively a large village club.
Forest Green had come a long way prior to Vince’s arrival, and with the virtues of his tenure, I am sure will repeat such outstanding performances after his departure, although nothing will come close to equalling his impact. Altering the total public image of the homely, yet irrelevant relegation candidates from the chocolate-box, yet still irrelevant Gloucestershire backwoods, his effect cannot be underestimated in transforming fortunes, while consigning heritage to the archives in the process. Is he a crazed eco-friendly megalomaniac? No. Has he been irresponsible with the club? It could be argued, yet after seven years, here he still stands with the club firmly intact and teetering on the prospect of the EFL. Alternatively, have his actions been blemish-free? Far from it, yet with the power that majority shareholders wield at football clubs, especially those in the non-league ranks, learning curves are fundamental. Rovers have taken into account the flailing disarray of many clubs, have welcomed and benefitted from the input of fans, and are employing Vince’s personal environmental and social policies in accordance – spelling triumph to date.
Securing the future of the club in 2010 with his escalation of involvement to majority shareholder, Vince certainly assured himself of short-term affection amongst support, and as comes with ethically complex and questionable owners, with success all queries were dropped – just survey Sheffield Wednesday’s untarnished Thai owner Dejphon Chansiri or their cross-city rivals United’s similarly disregarded Saudi financier Abdullah bin Musa'ed –, local support and national media intent to fixate on the partially sustainable positives of his reign rather than the shedding of a past guise; black and white striped kits binned, the Barcelona-esque badge cast to eternal reminiscence and an ambition for survival, in financial and sporting senses, ditched for professional aspirations.
Who can blame him? He is trying to do the best by the fans, the club, the vicinity, his company and himself, and such a balancing act is trying. There is a well-supported argument for Forest Green’s to be the most sustainable and ethically vehement of all business models in England’s top five leagues, and for that the club has to be applauded, yet in the context of providing a stylised adaptation of the same unsustainable approach of any other professional outfit; bar AFC Wimbledon, Wycombe Wanderers and Portsmouth. In many respects akin to Tony Bloom at Brighton and Hove Albion, a self-made billionaire and lifelong Brighton resident, Vince employs a fan-friendly approach with convictions close to his heart, allowing operations to run smoothly in what is primarily a successful footballing club. Realisations of a long-held ambition for the club’s development should come sooner rather than later, having released plans for a Zaha Hadid-designed stadium complex – the £100 million Eco Park to encompass 100 acres of greenbelt land off Junction 13 on the M5, complete with a 10,000 seater wood-forged stadium, grass and synthetic training pitches, multi-purpose community 3G pitches and sports science hubs, alongside a technology business park, nature reserve and public transport hub all of which, naturally, powered by Ecotricity technology – last year, and regardless of whether the first team secure promotion later this month or not, the club is moving forward dramatically. Thanks to Vince’s foresight, sufficient ownership interest should be in place come a relocation or promotion, so that one day he will be able to take a back seat with his aspiration realised.
Sure, play-off victory to avenge the successive seasons of falling at penultimate and final hurdles would be favourable, providing they can see off a Dagenham & Redbridge side determined to regain league status this Sunday, but it is not imperative to Forest Green’s future thanks to Vince’s financing. This may be the utmost testimony to the self-deprecating entrepreneur’s mission in Nailsworth; resources aren’t monstrously fixated on unsustainable surges through the pyramid’s successive tiers, with Vince’s personal desires tempered by those in the club’s interest to create a compromise of environmentally-focused and progressive policies with footballing developments, albeit one that cannot escape the looming presence of beneficial multi-millionaire investment in an area hardly deserving of such success for its historical stature or population. None of what we witness today at Forest Green would exist had it not been for the former New Age traveller, and I very much doubt they would have the capacity as a club to challenge the likes of Dagenham & Redbridge for League Two places.
Say what you like about Rovers. The vital factor to your opinion on Forest Green is perception; are they a well-meaning, environmentally-friendly, niche, ethically defiant club under Vince, tainted by their extortionate ambition and reliance on the funds of a local multi-millionaire, or are they a ruthless proposition of unattractive ambition, doomed to be their downfall, denying sides with greater claim for such big-time shots in a single-minded business pursuit, somehow redeemed by their quirky, vogueish decisions of Vince and co. which undoubtedly challenge the norm of English football? If they eventually achieve a position in league football, will they have truly earned it?
Even after all this analysis, I am honestly no closer to deciding whether Forest Green are the scourge of football, the half-cracked remnants of a shattered system, or the saviours of an industry so entangled in its subservience to fail to realise its ethical impacts. They are a finer proposition than many compiling the EFL’s 92, but of all non-league organisations, they are hardly representative of the values dearly protected by the likes of Lewes, Saffron Walden, Dulwich Hamlet and Dorchester, instead practicing egocentric pageants in the form of unrealistically expensive signings and media-friendly sustainable energy unveilings. They are an unparalleled quantity and the product of a single man’s eco-friendly social ambition; a true rarity in their field. I wouldn’t be surprised if this wasn’t their year for EFL promotion, but one day it will arrive, and with it will come even greater cross-examination of their ethics and history.
From being known The Little Club On The Hill amongst likely only 5,000 local inhabitants to being on the very verge of professional football, with more than a little help from a multi-millionaire eco-electricity tycoon along the way, Forest Green will hold a place dear in my heart and an extraordinary position in English footballing history for their newfound ethical manifesto, upon which a possible professional impetus could be brought to fruition. FGR carry a complex internal structure to football – whether they deserve a higher platform upon which to promote this is up for debate, but I do believe that as an outfit, they are healthy for the sport, neither deplorable nor faultless, and will, as football progresses, contribute significantly to its future. They need not attempt to appease universally, and remain an intrinsic example of the equilibrium between emotions that football can throw up; I’ll embrace their being, whether the league system can is another beast entirely.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!