What do Lewis Hamilton, Venus Williams and a tiny club in the Cotswolds have in common?
They’re all proudly vegan.
Forest Green Rovers are, in a lot of ways, the club of the future; providing a blueprint for others to follow if we truly want to make the world a better place for generations to come.
From the hospitality down to every blade of grass on the New Lawn pitch, eccentric owner Dale Vince has ensured thinking green is a way of life for the only all-vegan club on the planet.
“There’s always going to be haters but that’s up to them,” head chef Jade Crawford jokes. “At the end of the day we’re doing the right thing for the planet, for the animals, and for your health as well.”
But beef was very much on the menu for my trip to Nailsworth on Saturday; the home of Forest Green and the smallest town in history to host a Football League club.
While the main focus of my visit was to embrace the vegan culture, a toxic feud between Vince and Bolton chairman Ken Anderson provided a unique subplot to Rovers’ League Two clash with Bury.
Allow me to set the scene.
Anderson has been on thin ice since Bolton narrowly avoided administration in September.
The players have gone on strike in the last year over late payments.
In the last couple of weeks, Vince has publicly denounced Anderson for failing to honour a number of promises, namely the permanent signing of Forest Green’s record goalscorer Christian Doidge after an initial loan move.
Forest Green follow the ‘Moneyball’ approach, so the reported £1million transfer fee would have gone a long way.
But Anderson pulled the plug on the deal due to Bolton’s dire financial situation, allegedly without any notice to the player or Forest Green.
With Bolton fans already seething at their controversial owner, Vince saw an opportunity for solidarity.
‘No Ken Do’ t-shirts sold out with all the proceeds going to Bolton Wanderers’ Supporters Trust, whilst Vince promised Bolton fans who attended Rovers’ clash with Bury a free pint.
And they did. In their masses.
Over 100 Bolton fans travelled for three hours on a Saturday to watch a game between two teams they don’t support. The power of football in a nutshell.
“It’s classic Ken,” Vince told me, “he lives in a world of delusion.”
“We understand where they [Bolton fans] are coming from. If anything we’ve said or done can help their cause in terms of getting rid of that bloke then I’m really happy for them.
“I do think that the authorities need to intervene in these circumstances. What is happening to the club and the fans is horrendous.”
Anderson, in a statement last week, accused Vince of hunting publicity and branded him ‘probably one of the strangest people that I have ever come across in football.’
“I’m not sure how he can say this is a publicity stunt, we’re the victims here,” Vince said.
“It wasn’t our choice that they didn’t pay Doidge’s wages for four months. It wasn’t our choice that they didn’t complete the transfer on January 3rd. That’s what he did.”
Barry Gore, a lifelong Bolton fan, made the considerable trip down south to vent his anger towards Anderson and support Doidge’s cause.
“He [Doidge] moved his family all the way up to Bolton on the promise of a three-year contract,” Gore said.
“It’s an absolute disgrace how a professional footballer has been treated by that thief.
“The sooner we get Anderson out the better.
“He told the supporters he paid the players’ wages out of his own pocket. It turns out that’s a complete lie and it was actually a loan from the FA.
“It’s just lie after lie after lie and we’ve had enough.”
Vince clearly sees the bigger picture, assisting the embattled within the footballing community while transforming his own club at the same time.
Before his takeover in 2010, Rovers escaped relegation from the Conference twice on technicalities, due to punishments to rival clubs.
Now they’re looking up, with the Championship a realistic target in the coming years once their new stadium – made entirely out of wood – is completed.
“The sky’s the limit,” Tim Barnard, author of Something To Shout About, said. “I’ve watched them from the County Leagues up to League Two and I seriously think we can get promoted again this year.
“He’s [Vince] changed the food which everybody thought would ruin the club, but you can see how many people have embraced it.
“He’s transformed the place.”
Forest Green’s philosophy is even more pertinent given the rise in popularity of Veganuary.
Some don’t buy it, with Piers Morgan at his insufferable worst after Greggs had the temerity to release a vegan sausage roll earlier this month.
“I think he’s [Morgan] insulted for a living,” Vince added. “I think he reacts in that way because that’s what gets him an audience and gets him noticed.”
While the award-winning food grabs the headlines, Forest Green’s attention to vegan detail stretches all the way down to the maintenance of the New Lawn pitch too.
As well as employing a state of the art robot lawn mower aptly named ‘Mowbot’, the club boasts an organic pitch with a strictly plant-based diet.
“You’ll find most pitches use chemicals to fight diseases,” head groundsman Adam Witchell explained.
“Even in a lot of organic fertilisers they use a lot of animal matter like blood and bones and fish guts.
“We don’t do that. My natural products make the ground tougher and the grass and microbes stronger and that’s what keeps the disease away.”
It’s a meticulous approach that Vince believes is reaping rewards on and off the pitch.
Forest Green have lost just five times in League Two all season and another promotion is now a realistic target despite gatecrashing the Football League for the first time in 2017.
“The publicity has been a bit bonkers really,” Vince said. “Our story has reached nearly three billion people around the world in 12 months.
“It’s really put the club on the map.
“On the pitch our players that have gone full-time vegan are really feeling the difference in terms of their energy levels and the rate they recover.”
The fans are on board too, even if not all of them have taken the leap into veganism yet.
“I’m not a vegan or a vegetarian but when I come down here the food is always fantastic,” Barnard added.
“The fact it’s got no meat – what’s the problem with that?”
Their revolutionary model might leave Piers Morgan feeling green but Rovers clearly have an insatiable appetite to make a difference.
After years treading water in the footballing wilderness, Forest Green are going places and doing it their own way.
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