For many clubs with detailed and fabled pasts dating back to the 19th century, pride in their histories are the foundation on which such organisations are often built. As the sport shifts, mutates and evolves as we lunge further into the uncharted waters of 21st century football, clubs around the world seek appeasing both life-long supporters and the persona of the club by staying true to tradition and heritage, by looking to their past for inspiration when it comes to key decisions on kits, crests or even a general ethos.
However, deep within the English Football League pyramid is a team with a history that stretches back as far as most - all the way to 1883. In a time when Queen Victoria reigned supreme, Karl Marx was living out his final days and the first electric railway was completed, a sleepy town in the Cotswolds earned its first football club - Forest Green F.C.
Founded by Reverend E.J.H. Peach and adopting the Rovers name four years later, the club enjoyed 117 merry years representing the tiny parish of Nailsworth, doing battle primarily in Gloucestershire’s Northern Senior League and Hellenic League Premier Division. Their crowning moment during this period was a 3-0 success in the fabled FA Vase, where in a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Wembley, they put the famous Rainworth Miners Welfare FC to the sword, to bring the trophy home to the Stroud Valleys. The population of the town, resting at just a few thousand strong, probably thought that this was the greatest success that little old Nailsworth may ever see.
Eventually, however, just before the turn of the millennium, everything changed.
After spending the ‘90s scrapping in the Southern Leagues, the lucrative, sought-after promotion to the then-titled Football Conference finally came at the end of the 1997-98 season. Forest Green were finally on the map. But the step up soon began to feel like one too many for the club, who lasted just five years before slipping into the dreaded relegation zone - only to be reprieved, against all odds, when Northwich Victoria were demoted because of issues with their stadium. The Rovers then campaigned bravely against the inevitable for another five years, before slipping beneath the surface and that cursed red line once again, in ’09-10.
They say that lightning doesn’t strike twice, but for Forest Green Rovers, it did. This tiny club, preparing for a return to life playing regional football, were somehow spared from relegation for the second time in a decade. Salisbury City were instead expelled for breaking financial regulations and amazingly, the club was safe to fight another day. As footballing miracles go, Forest Green had just been dealt the whole bible.
But then, lightning struck on a third occasion - only this time, it was powered by solar panels and illuminated by LED lights. In 2010, a long, shaggy-haired, former New Age traveller named Dale Vince walked in to Forest Green Rovers with the £30,000 needed to keep the side afloat - but it came with a condition. He wanted to implement a plan that would not just to resurrect the stumbling club, but revolutionise it for the rest of its days. Vince, owner of the UK’s first renewable energy company, Ecotricity, and with an OBE for services to the environment, was a true saving grace for Forest Green Rovers and they haven’t looked back since.
Vince threw tradition and heritage out of the window (and into its suitable wheelie bin for recycling). The club would no longer look to their past for inspiration when it came to key decisions on kits, crests or even a general ethos - but to the future, instead. He outlined his plans to make Forest Green Rovers the most eco-friendly sporting institution in the world. He wasn’t afraid of the inevitable doubters, the occasional jesters or the fans that may contest the club’s drastic overhaul. He had his vision.
The following twelve months saw red meat stripped from the player’s diets and meat as an entity removed from the products available on the terraces. Sat above the supports who tucked into their vegan pies and sipped from their vegan beer were 180 newly-installed solar panels, which powered 10% of the club, as well as the robot lawnmower used to tend to the Rovers’ playing surface - which of course, was treated with organic fertiliser.
The change was mirrored off the pitch too, with their former (and remarkably Barcelona-esque) crest being shunted for the current one in 2011. The club’s famous black-and-white kits were next to see the chopping block in 2012, when two years later, it was decided that the white stripes were to be replaced with lurid green ones, with matching shorts and socks. Green is the name, green is the club, green are the valleys that engulf the surrounding area. It became a side like no other, almost overnight.
The radical conversion would almost certainly have been ridiculed, had it not lead to success on the pitch. But long gone were the days of relegation peril, Vince’s meticulous methods had lead to the team slowly forcing their way further into the Conference play-offs with every attempt. They were granted their first chance at promotion in 2015, only to be well-beaten in the semi-final stages at the hands of Bristol Rovers. The following season, Rovers gallantly went one step further, only to taste the familiar bitterness of defeat at Wembley, losing 3-1 to Grimsby Town in the final.
Their third consecutive venture however, saw them finally wave goodbye to the emotional rollercoaster that had been the Football Conference. Two 3-1 victories, over Dagenham & Redbridge and then Tranmere Rovers in the capital, saw Nailsworth become the smallest town to ever play host to a Football League club.
The changes at the club kept coming as the club entered League Two, with the club adopting kits made of bamboo, the recycling of rain waiter for use on the playing surface and further reinforcement of vegan diets for the playing staff, as well as all dairy products also being removed from the terraces. Cooking oil was to be recycled for other uses, ticket prices were to include a carbon-offsetting levy, with even the soap in the stadium toilets being made from the pitch’s grass cuttings. Rovers are also leading the push for low-energy floodlights, with LED bulbs deemed too inefficient.
But perhaps the biggest leap for the club, was the planning permission being granted for their new stadium in 2019 - which is, of course, made almost entirely from wood. Named ‘Eco Park’, it is set to become the first of its kind upon completion. The state-of-the-art arena boasts a 5,000 capacity (which can be doubled, depending on the club’s successes) and will be surrounded by landscaped car parking facilities and some 500 newly planted trees and 1.8km of fresh hedgerows. Every screw, seat and stand has been methodically designed with sustainability in mind, which did explain the wait until the 2023/24 season for its completion.
But in this completely unique, revolutionary and environment-focused environment, Forest Green Rovers continue to thrive. Two very different achievements acted as the 2018/19 season’s bookends, just their second full campaign in League Two. Incredibly, they started by becoming the first football club in the world to be certified carbon neutral by the United Nations, and ended it by reaching the play-off semi-finals. This season seems to have started in similarly promising fashion, too. The Rovers are once again in promotion contention and continue to make waves off the field, with a fresh investment boost coming from one of our favourite figures in the game here at TCD - Héctor Bellerín.
Héctor, a proud vegan of three years, became Forest Green’s second-largest shareholder back in September after taking notice of the strides that this most pioneering of football clubs were making. In an interview with the club’s media channels, he said “I was really excited when I first discovered the opportunity to get involved at Forest Green Rovers – and the brilliant work the club is already doing. It’s important that I invest in things I am passionate about – and I’m excited to help push football into having a sustainable future”.
He joins a club whose football (in a traditional sense) is progressing and improving, but infinitely more importantly, one who is showing even the behemoths on the continent the progression that can be achieved by combining dedication and action. Their remarkable odyssey up the Football League ladder will only help not just to showcase their environmental furtherances, but also to fund it and most importantly, prove to their peers that it can lead to fulfilment of your on-pitch goals, too. Football is a sport that ultimately defines our lives because of it’s warming tradition and nostalgia, but this most impactful of League Two team is proving that the game does need a 21st century makeover and one that will leave the face of the sport in a better place for future generations to enjoy, guilt-free, for centuries to come.
It has embarrassed the excuses of many clubs who avoided such an overhaul because of budgetary reasons, simply by becoming an organisation of their word. Dale Vince made himself, Forest Green Rovers, the fans and our weakening environment a promise that his investment would allow the club to dare to be different. It turned a diminishing side, a club clinging onto a cliff’s edge with a perilous drop to local league football below - a cliff which it had taken almost two centuries to scale - and allowed it to blossom into one that is a true global leader and a revolutionary maverick in the sporting industry. Your Dad might begrudgingly sip on his vegan lager and scoff at his plant-based burger - but your grandchildren won’t.
Forest Green Rovers are a world first, but they almost certainly won’t be the last.