The Bottom Corner: Hope, Glory and Non-League Football by Nige Tassell. It is out now from Yellow Jersey Press (£9.99) penguin.co.uk. It would make a great gift for a non-league friend or relation!
‘You’ve got to evolve. You can’t freeze yourself in time because of tradition. You get left behind.’
Dale Vince carries dreams and aspirations every bit as ambitious as the subject of my previous piece in our Dagenham programme on Wednesday, about FC United. As the owner (at the time this was written) of Conference stalwarts Forest Green Rovers, Vince is surely the most progressive, most visionary chairman in non-league [Asst Editor – don’t tell our own Steve Skinner that though!].
It was following his dreams that got him to where he is today. A former new-age traveller who once lived in a decommissioned military vehicle, his drive to harness the planet’s non-fossil natural resources is what has defined him. He is the founder and owner of Ecotricity, the country’s first green energy company. Spot a sky-scraping wind turbine on your travels and it’s almost certainly one of theirs. In the twenty years of their existence, the company’s success has made Vince – in anyone’s language and certainly in the language of someone whose home was a decommissioned military vehicle – a very rich man.
As he walks through the restaurant here at Forest Green’s New Lawn stadium, on the outskirts of Nailsworth, in Gloucestershire, Vince looks successful. He doesn’t strut or swagger, but he does give off the aura of someone with a back story of achievement. He wears a pale-blue T-shirt, studded with reddish spangles, that looks reassuringly expensive, while a silver pendant winks in the energy-saving lights of the restaurant. His shoulder-length hair has recently been shorn at the sides, revealing a silver loop piercing the tragus of his left ear. This is not the look of an archetypal football club chairman.
Neither is this the usual story of a successful local entrepreneur – perhaps a sheet-metal magnate [Asst Editor – sounds familiar?] or a toilet-roll tycoon [Asst Editor – no comparisons with any former Grays’ chairmen, please!] – emptying his bulging pockets to fulfil a childhood fantasy of running his own club. For starters and despite being based in nearby Stroud, Vince had never visited the New Lawn before the club asked for help. Dipping a toe into the choppy, cash-dissolving waters of football was never on his agenda. But he has done so in a rather revolutionary way, as he explains in discreet, hushed tones.
‘In early summer 2010, I read about how the club was in financial trouble and had been relegated, only to be reprieved by the bankruptcy of another club. Someone invited me to see what they were doing up there. It was a lovely place with lovely people. They said they only needed forty grand for cashflow to get through the summer and then everything would be fine [Asst Editor – naïve or what? The trouble is forty grand is normally just the start – so read on!]. That was no problem to me. It just seemed worth saving – it’s a big part of the community. I thought it would be the decent thing to do.
‘But one thing led to another. They had no idea how much they really needed. The people who’d got the club into this league had done as much as they could, but it was a volunteer-run club in a league that had progressively become full-time and professional, as clubs kept dropping into it from the Football League. It was as far as you could take a club like this on a volunteer basis.’
Having thrown himself and his employees at the challenge, it wasn’t a case of Vince sinking a few million into the business and seeing if the team could float to the surface. Instead, he saw a gilt-edged opportunity to think bigger, to use the club as a platform for his principles. ‘One of the ways we’ve justified this big investment is by bringing our eco message into the football world, one that’s relatively untouched by it and you have to wow people.’ The pitch here is the world’s first truly organic pitch and, yes, it does have that wow factor. From the restaurant’s windows, the playing surface below, even in the slate-grey murk of the day, looks immaculate.
It’s the same with the food provision at the New Lawn. Vince has attracted widespread attention in the national media for what the club serves on its plates – or, rather, what it doesn’t serve. ‘We stopped red meat, then stopped white meat, then went vegetarian and this season went vegan. When I first came here, we were serving the players minced beef lasagne. I had no idea why. From a sports performance point of view, red meat is not a good thing. That was my starting point. But, secondly, as a vegan I can’t be involved in the meat trade in any way. We couldn’t feed our fans and staff this stuff.
Look at what the man’s got on his plate there.’ He gestures to the Forest Green fan at the next table, who thankfully doesn’t spot us studying him eating his lunch. ‘That’s pie on a bed of mashed potato with fine shredded beets on top, plus peas and gravy. It’s fantastic. What you have to focus on is not what’s in the food, but that it’s great food. We avoid labelling, so vegetarian lasagne is just lasagne. You’re just setting yourself up to fail otherwise.’
With notable initial disquiet about the red meat ban, the changes Vince was ringing on the footballing side as well meant that the club’s saviour was increasingly being met with suspicion. Replacing the club’s colours and badge can be seen as heretical measures in football’s more conservative quarters, yet the new owner didn’t hesitate to do just that. ‘We changed the badge because it was a rip-off of Barcelona’s – and a bad one at that. The club needed an identity, so we now have a first-team strip that’s unique to us.’ They certainly do. The lime-green and black combination is the most striking on the non-league scene, at least other than Dulwich Hamlet’s shocking-pink and blue kit.
The kit change confirmed Vince’s skills as a savvy marketer. The new colours, along with the chunky font used for the names and numbers on the back of the shirt, mirror the energy company’s corporate identity. ‘I wouldn’t say the club is part of Ecotricity’s marketing as such,’ he defends when challenged, ‘but’s it’s part of the promotion of our message.’
Some of his actions might have got up the noses of the faithful, but the opposition has softened in the passing years. ‘It was the thing we didn’t do in the first couple of years that upset people the most – and that was sack the manager! When we first got here, the team were not only part-time, but only ten of the players were signed up for the season. They never trained or played on a full-size pitch, except for matches. I wanted to give the manager a chance to see what he could do. So we went full-time, brought in new players and changed the way we trained.’ It wasn’t until three years after the new owner’s arrival that the manager was finally let go.
‘Doing the right thing’ is a recurring conversational motif – and these methods and principles are borne out by the club’s league position. They’re currently looking down on the rest of the Conference table, having begun the season (2015-16) with nine straight wins. Tranmere are today’s visitors, a chance to measure Forest Green’s achievements against another of the division’s big boys.
‘Our aim is to ultimately be a Championship club. When we started this, we said we’d achieve that within ten years. That was four years ago, so we’ve got six left! It’s possible, but I wouldn’t mind if we were sat in League One in six years’ time. That wouldn’t trouble me. I’m much more interested in doing it in the right way, in a sustainable way, so that once we get there, we can stay there.’
As he reaches the bottom of his pint, Vince reveals his biggest dream of all – to build a stadium ‘that’s never been seen before, the kind of stadium that all fans will want to visit and tick off their list, like Wembley. A real experience.’ To do this would mean Forest Green leaving their current location and resettling on a plot adjacent to junction thirteen of the M5, part of Vince’s planned 100-acre eco-park split between sports facilities and business. It would put the club in comfortable reach of north Bristol, Gloucester, Cheltenham, Tewkesbury and the Forest of Dean, as well as making travel easy for away fans. It would also mean the first team, who currently train thirteen miles away in Cirencester, would be based in one location, along with the women’s and academy teams, neither of whom train or play at the New Lawn.
These plans are on the table despite the fact that the existing stadium is only nine years old and certainly good enough for the requirements of League Two football, should the hoped-for promotion at the end of the season materialise. Vince shakes his head. ‘The stadium would cope, but the location absolutely wouldn’t. The roads get clogged on match days, people park in the local streets and upset the neighbours. There’s one leading in which is narrow and steep [Asst Editor – I remember on one of our visits there in our Conference days, when we thought we mind end up pushing the coach up the hill!] and we’ve got only a hundred and fifty spaces for a stadium that holds five thousand. It’s a good facility that’s just in the wrong place.’
You can believe he’ll get there too, to the promised land out near Junction Thirteen. He might be the owner of the Conference’s longest-serving member, a club that has stayed in the same division for seventeen seasons, but Dale Vince himself doesn’t stand still. He’s an idealistic dreamer, for sure, but he’s also a man of action. While the Premier League gets plumper and plumper on its petrochem dollars, the green pounds this multi-millionaire is spending mean more and give more value. Doing the right thing, as he would invariably say.
Now for another Grays Athletic blast from the past – the former on-loan Leyton Orient striker, then known as Gary Fletcher, who played four games for us in the 2001-02 season scoring three times, before moving on to play in the Premier League for Blackpool, where he scored their first-ever Premier League goal, as well as good spells at Lincoln, Huddersfield, Leicester, Sheffield Wednesday and Millwall.
‘Ooo-ooo-ooo, Gary Taylor-Fletcher!’
Merseyside is known for its songwriters, but few were surely as quick-witted as the lyricists among the 481 members of the Tranmere faithful who’ve made the journey down to Forest Green. The club completed the signing of veteran striker Gary Taylor-Fletcher this very morning, a deal that pays instant dividends when the striker, carrying a little more weight than in his heyday, scores with only his third touch in a Tranmere shirt. Rovers are one-up against the league leaders after just five minutes and the away terrace’s tribute, to the tune of Black Lace’s ‘Do the Conga’, is immediate. A new cult hero, a new song to be sung.
It’s far from the only example of the songwriters’ art we hear this afternoon. The meat-free environment offers the richest pickings for the carnivorous choir’s satirical barbs. An early offering, to the tune of ‘Yellow Submarine’, is ‘We all dream of a ham sandwich / a ham sandwich / a ham sandwich’. ‘Go West’, the disco anthem by both Village People and the Pet Shop Boys, is plundered for the factually water-tight ‘1-0 to the meat-eaters!’. But the most smiles are reserved for their take on ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’: ‘Oh, Birkenhead / Is Wonderful/ Oh, Birkenhead is wonderful / It’s full beef, beef and more beef / Oh, Birkenhead is wonderful’.
Then, just as the food-related merriment seems to be wearing thin (‘Who’s the vegan in the black?’ etc.) comes surely the intellectual highpoint of this afternoon’s musical banter: ‘You can stick your veggie burgers up your arse / You can stick your veggie burgers up your arse…’
The bonhomie grows even stronger when former Forest Green striker James Norwood doubles Tranmere's lead after twenty-two minutes. A fan just along from me – one certainly old enough to know better, but presumably with a couple of pints of vegan beer in his belly – climbs onto one of the terrace’s dividing barriers and somehow balances for at least half a minute while he unleashes a stream-of-consciousness tribute to his heroes. His pals in front offer a soft landing.
There’s reason for such acrobatics. The home side’s luminous lime-green kit might be successfully penetrating the Gloucestershire gloom, but they’re unable to penetrate the visitors’ stout and resolute gameplay. Little evidence is offered as to why Forest Green are currently top of the league. And Tranmere's new front paring are playing as if they’ve been lifelong team-mates.
The two-goal advantage is comfortably held until the final whistle, an impressive victory that lifts them to fourth in the table. There’s a skip in the stride as the fans leave the ground, picking their way through discarded chip trays and ripped-up raffle tickets. Tonight the fleet of coaches will head back to the Wirral full of song and good cheer. But not before their passengers issue a poignant farewell to their Forest Green brethren.
‘Town full of vegans! You’re just a town full of vegans…’
As if to prove his iconoclast tendencies, towards the end of Forest Green’s 2015-16 season, Dale Vince took an unparalleled decision, one that bemused almost every single onlooker. With one game of the season left, he sacked manager, Ady Pennock, despite the club’s highest-ever finish – second in the Conference. Vince based his decision on a hunch that Pennock wasn’t the man to lead them to play-off success. The team had endured poor form in the last few games of the regular season, but the counter-argument was that – with second place secure and no hope of catching ultimate champions Cheltenham – this was down to Pennock deliberately resting players in advance of the play-offs. With a caretaker manager in charge, they did indeed reach Wembley, but were ultimately denied by Grimsby.
UPDATE BY THE WANDERER
Last season, Forest Green slipped a place to third in the table, but they won the Conference play-off final 3-1, at Wembley. Guess who they beat? Tranmere Rovers, of course, who had finished second nine points above them in the table!
So Forest Green Rovers gained promotion to the Football League for the first time in their history, after 128 years in non-league. They are currently in 18th place in League Two with twenty points from their twenty-one games. They play at Exeter next Tuesday evening in a second round replay of the FA Cup, after a 3-3 draw at the New Lawn last weekend. The winners will face a juicy home tie against West Brom in the third round on 6 January 2018. It would be a first for Forest Green if they get through, having never played a competitive game against Premier League opposition. Quite an incentive for Dale Vince and his club.
Updated 10:08 - 27 Dec 2017 by GAFC News