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Another way

Another way

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Amidst Newcastle’s takeover and sanctions against Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, what can League Two club Forest Green Rovers teach us about a different approach to football club ownership?

How have League Two’s Forest Green Rovers shown there is another way to approach football club ownership?

“So this is the famous pie. The Q Pie. What’s in it?”

“It’s leek, and Quorn, and that, like, creates a meaty type texture, obviously there’s no meat in there because it’s all vegan…”

“Alright, I’ll try it.”

“Enjoy!”

“Thank you very much, it looks delicious…”

Forest Green Rovers

In 2017, FIFA described Forest Green Rovers as ‘the greenest football club in the world’. 

They’re the first and only vegan football club, and the first club to be certified as carbon neutral by the United Nations.

And from the car park, and around the stadium, you see all the hallmarks of this, as I found out recently.

“I’m at the New Lawn, Forest Green Rovers’ stadium, and there’s solar panels around, there’s rainwater captured from the roofs which apparently irrigates the pitch rather than using mains water. 

“There’s electric vehicle charging points in the car park. Earlier, as I walked around the stadium towards the club shop, their replica shirts are made from bamboo. Last year they revealed a prototype kit made from waste coffee grounds and recycled plastic. 

“There’s a sign in the far stand from where I’m sitting, saying ‘Defending ocean wildlife worldwide’, there’s an advertising hoarding that says ‘Vegan… and changing the game’.

So yeah, I think it’s fair to say you know where you are when you come to Forest Green Rovers.”

Andrew Butler

The other day, on a long journey back from watching my team Leyton Orient play out a 0-0 draw in Hartlepool, I calculated that over the course of my life, travelling the length and breadth of the country, I’d been to over half the professional football stadiums in England and Wales.

Like I said…it was a long journey home. 

So I can say with some confidence that Forest Green Rovers is unique in British football.

And it’s mainly thanks to one man – Dale Vince.

He’s a ‘green energy industrialist’. He started out as a New Age traveller with a windmill on the roof of his van and founded the energy company Ecotricity. He  took over Forest Green Rovers in 2010 after the Cotswolds club, based in Nailsworth, near Stroud, ran into financial difficulties.

In January, he joined an event we held in our newsroom here at Tortoise about the ethics of football. He said he had issues with the term ‘owner’, and explained why he started to make his mark on the club in such a radical way.

First off, I don’t see myself as an owner, I see myself more as a kind of custodian. I didn’t buy the club. I rescued it and took responsibility for it. I did it just because it was a big part of the local community. It was on the verge of bankruptcy and relegation in 2010.

“So that’s 11 years ago. Um, and, and I didn’t do it with any great deal of preparational pre-thought, I just noticed my local football club. It was 120 years old at the time, a big part of this local community. I am a football fan, but also I live and work in the area. It was in my backyard and it didn’t seem to need a lot of help or money.

“So I just got involved. And within a couple of months, the people running the club said to me, you need to be the chairman, otherwise the club’s gonna fold. By which they really meant I needed to, um, you know, pick up its debts and stuff like that. And, uh, and so I just faced the very simple choice, watch the club fold or take responsibility for it. I chose to do that without thinking about what it might involve.

“Day one, I found that we were serving red meat and I stopped that because it’s against my principles. I quickly found that a whole bunch of things were being done at the club that didn’t fit with me. Not just environmental things, but ethical things as well. There was a lot of stuff I didn’t like. And so I just started to change it all…”

Dale Vince

The moves at the time were controversial – making wholesale change to a club is rarely accepted without a challenge from fans.

Dale Vince hasn’t been, and still isn’t, universally liked by all Forest Green Rovers fans – but maybe that’s to be expected when you cause such upheaval at a football club.

But fans like their teams to win. 

And since 2010, Forest Green Rovers have been promoted to the Football League for the first time in their history, and are currently seven points clear at the top of League Two with ten games remaining. 

Now, it’s pretty obvious that in the past few weeks and months a lot of people who love football have been looking in vain for the sport’s soul.

First there was Newcastle’s takeover by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund.

And as much as manager Eddie Howe might want to talk about refereeing decisions, he is starting to realise he can’t duck questions about human rights abuses.

Then, there’s Chelsea. The sanctions against Roman Abramovich have made Chelsea supporters, but football fans more broadly, really look closely about who we – and it is a collective we, as fans – should allow to be custodians of these grand community assets. 

So is it possible to marry sustainability, ethical leadership and success?

That’s the question that led me to Forest Green Rovers.

Sean Baker has been a fan of Forest Green for over 17 years. I asked him about the journey the club’s been on, and how Dale Vince has inspired their change in fortunes. 

“To start with, a lot of fans didn’t like him. 

“They used to let it be known in the stands, and sing. But over time people have, kind of, got used to it, I think, and like myself, I don’t get involved in the politics side of football. 

“I wasn’t a vegan… I’m not a vegan, but I do try it, and to be fair I do try it at home when I see some things, in a shop I’ll see it and be like, OK. 

“But I think a lot of fans are like myself, they’re just enjoying the ride you’re on. 

“The club, as a chairman, keeps it sustainable… I think the club’s in good hands and going in the right direction.”

Sean Baker

The club’s ambitions are driven by Dale Vince, and they’re not just plucky underdogs punching above their weight.

On the neckline of the back of their shirts is a Forest Green Rovers monogram with three stars above it. 

The first is filled in, signifying the club’s promotion to League Two. The other Two are greyed out, indicating the next steps they want to take – to reach League One and then the Championship.

They’ve had new stadium plans drawn up, with the aim of creating  the ‘greenest football stadium in the world’, made almost entirely of wood. 

And if you have any lingering doubts by this point, the actual road that Forest Green Rovers’ stadium sits on is, quite deliberately, called ‘Another Way’.

At the start of next season, they will almost certainly be wearing a kit with another one of those stars filled in. 

The League Two club may be an exception to the current rule, but as we see more stories of clubs like Newcastle and Chelsea, maybe some fans will acknowledge that success doesn’t have to come at a cost to your values.

Oh, and the pies? They’re really good.

Today’s episode was written by Andrew Butler, and produced by Ella Hill.