Forest Green Rovers are a club with a distinctly non-league feel. The team is based in the small Gloucestershire town of Nailsworth; it has a population just under 6,000 and is virtually inaccessible by public transport, with the nearest train station over 3 miles away in Stroud. It is also a strangely idyllic and quaint location for a football team, a sport you more readily associate with urban centres and industrialised towns. Instead Forest Green are located in the valleys of the Cotswolds with scenic views all around.
For a long period of time Rovers understandably looked like a club punching well above their weight. Since promotion to The Conference National in 1999 they have been frequently embroiled in relegation battles. They were actually relegated on two occasions, in 2005 and 2010, only to be reprieved due to the financial difficulties of Northwich Victoria and Salisbury City respectively. Nevertheless those narrow escapes seemed like they were merely delaying the inevitable, the consensus was their lack of resources would eventually tell.
However after the 2009-10 season Dale Vince, owner of the company ‘Ecotricity’ which produces renewable energy, became chairman of Forest Green and the club underwent a green revolution. The classic black and white stripes were replaced by neon green and black hoops, the clubs badge was phased out too, both changes met uneasily by supporters concerned about the club’s shift in identity.
These changes have continued since, the New Lawn Stadium, once a standard lower league ground is now a giant promotion for sustainability. The car park has charging points for electronic vehicles, there are a 180 solar panels around the ground, providing 10% of the ground’s electricity, bins are divided by type of recycling, all the food is strictly vegan and the standard advertising hoardings for league sponsors Vanarama and local businesses are interspersed with signs for Ecotricity and posters exalting the benefits of renewable energy.
While traditionalists may sneer at these alternations, Rovers are undoubtedly more successful in their current guise. Last season they reached the Conference playoffs for the first time, only to lose out to Bristol Rovers who were eventually promoted. This season they are locked in a battle for the league title with local rivals Cheltenham Town and a first ever appearance in the football league is a distinct possibility. Attendances too are on the rise and the decision to give home fans the South Stand – a large terrace behind the goal – has seen a noticeable improvement in atmosphere.
Although they won’t be at the New Lawn much longer; at the start of the season plans were announced to move to ‘Eco Park’. This will be developed over the next five years and will include an all-seater stadium with a 5,000 capacity (capable of rising to 10,000), a range of sporting facilities, and a green technology business park capable of providing 4,000 jobs. Its location just off junction 13 of the M5 will also make it much more accessible than its Nailsworth location and Vince hopes it will widen the club’s catchment area and attract new fans from across the South West.
Of course it is not all positive for Forest Green. Rival fans complain with some legitimacy about the money being poured into the club. The likes of Jon Parkin are on wages far greater than the league average lending credibility to the ‘non-league Abramovich’ tag sometimes given to Vince. Others view his overhaul of the club as a vanity project and some are not impressed with how much the club has changed. Yet whatever you think, the club is on an upward trajectory and could become an established force in the Football League before long.