Groundhopper

Forest Green Rovers: Tasting the vegan football experience

"A vegan menu, at an eco-friendly club that attracts worldwide fans thanks to its moral values, was a unique matchday premise that I'd been keen to sample."

Forest Green Rovers have been on my groundhop shopping list for a while. They’re renowned for being the only vegan football club in the world – no meat or dairy is available on matchdays, their pitch is organic and the stadium is powered entirely by solar energy.

A vegan menu, at an eco-friendly club that attracts worldwide fans thanks to its moral values, was a unique matchday premise that I’d been keen to sample. So when my friend and old work colleague, Toby, re-located to Stroud, I couldn’t pass down his invite to see his new local team in action.

Highlights

Salopians on tour

The last time I joined Toby on a football trip was when his Shrewsbury Town team took on Blackburn Rovers last January. It wasn’t the best of days up in Lancashire, with many Salop fans over-fuelled on alcohol and overzealous in nature. However, this experience was a lot more enjoyable.

I met up with Toby, and fellow Shrewsbury Town fans Brett and Matt, outside Stroud train station. We then headed straight down the road to soak up the pre-match atmosphere in Rovers’ home town/parish of Nailsworth.

Unsurprisingly for a place with a 7,000 populus, there wasn’t much anticipation in the air when we arrived. However, we did come across a number of interesting sights. After crossing the Nailsworth stream, we discovered a couple of golden postboxes dedicated to Olympic champion Peter Reed. The rower had grown up in the town before going on to compete in the men’s four at the 2012 Games in London. Having won gold, the postboxes were sprayed that colour by the Royal Mail to honour his achievements.

Further discoveries were made at our first pub, The Victoria Inn. The bar was decorated with two and five pence pieces and we found a number of games hidden in a table drawer where we were sitting. We played Pointless and moved onto our next pub.

At The Britannia, we were greeted by a chihuahua sat on a stool at the bar. A couple of Rovers fans were there too but the atmosphere still wasn’t building. So we concluded our pre-match tour and headed up the massive sloped road that led to the suburban area called Forest Green. Toby quipped: ‘It’s literally all downhill from here.’ And as the rain began to fall on our climb to The New Lawn, we didn’t know how right he’d be.

Disappointments

It not only rained, it poured

When we arrived, we made the decision to stand with the away supporters. Our hunch was that they’d provide a better atmosphere – and it seemed to pay off. The Crawley fans were very vocal in the gazebo outside the ground and continued their support during the early stages of the game.

Their side had the best of the chances despite the home team dominating possession. The in-form Ollie Palmer – with five goals to his name in League Two already – looked the most threatening for the Red Devils. He latched on to Panutche Camara’s through-ball and forced Rovers goalkeeper Robert Sanchez into a save, with the rebound put wide by the on-rushing George Francomb.

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Palmer then had a header easily collected by Sanchez before the goalkeeper was in action again to deny Filipe Morais from distance. But after that early spell of pressure, things levelled out and the game became quite lifeless.

When half-time came, Wrexham’s score came in too and I began getting further disgruntled. My team were 2-0 behind and down to 10 men for the rest of the game. Soon after the restart, Shrewsbury went a goal down as well, and the Salop boys began feeling as subdued as I was.

Being amongst the away fans soon lost its novelty as the rain got heavier and Crawley took an onslaught of pressure. The only time it ceased was when the Town fans began a 59th minute applause for one of their supporters, Gill Courtney, who recently passed away from cancer. They actually almost scored when the clapping reached its climax, in what would have been an extraordinary end to a warming tribute.

Crawley couldn’t keep that spark going though, and Rovers resumed dominance straight afterwards. At that point, we kind of forgot about our allegiance to the Red Devils and enjoyed the flowing football their Green counterparts were displaying. Some of the link-up play was a joy to behold. Reece Brown looked so composed in the middle of the park and Reuben Reid impressed me with his ability to hold the ball and bring others into play.

The away side were stuck in their own half and didn’t heed the warning of a spilled shot that was deemed not fully over the goal-line. Brown played Reid a delicious ball soon after, which he controlled well, and hit a deflected strike into the top corner for the game’s only goal.

I think we might have celebrated a bit. A 0-0 draw in those conditions would have been tough to take. But it must have been even worse to be a Crawley fan. Their substitute Joe McNerney received a second yellow card in injury-time to compound a miserable afternoon for them.

The food

I’d done some research about the food on offer at Forest Green before attending the match and I was really looking forward to trying a vegan Mexican fajita at half-time. However, when I got to the booth, there was no fajita and the alternative options weren’t particularly appetising.

Chips were the menu’s staple food. The option to have them with gravy or Quorn nuggets was about the only form of variety available. Quite a comedown from my dreamy fajita.

The Salop boys and I all stood under the turnstile entrance for shelter and ate our basic meals as our raffle numbers weren’t called out. Meanwhile, a number of Crawley fans were arguing with stewards about their inflatable pigs and fish being confiscated. Apparently it was because one swine had entered the field of play – which wasn’t strictly true, as it barely reached the touchline.

With that bit of fun taken away and the rain setting in, full-time felt a long way off.

Overall

My girlfriend, Saffron, is a vegan and she was very envious about my visit to Forest Green. But, to be honest, I don’t think she would have enjoyed herself too much. It certainly wasn’t a great matchday experience for myself in the away end. The food wasn’t what I was expecting and the covered terracing didn’t do that great a job. The atmosphere felt really flat all day as well.

It’s annoying because I really applaud the initiatives and changes that Forest Green are trying to implement in football, business and the planet. But I don’t think many Crawley fans – or the chaps I was with – will take any of it on board. And I can’t really blame them, the vegan football experience didn’t have anything particularly fresh or exciting to offer us ‘away’ fans.

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I’m sure I’ll be going back to Forest Green with Saff in the future, so at least I can use my day as a learning curve. The home section might well have the better options for food, while the lady coming around with samosas during the first half might be the best bet if we’re in the visiting section. Getting to Nailsworth will be a problem though, as it’s quite a distance from Stroud train station.

I felt very fortunate to be in the company I was with. Toby and his girlfriend, Kate, drove me to and from the ground and also let me stay at their place while I waited for my train back. Whilst at the game itself, I had a lot of fun with the Salop boys and we all had Reuben Reid to thank for his strike. He really did save our bacon.

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