(Enchanted) Forest Green and Vince charming
Plans for a new club crest are the latest in a series of changes for Conference survivors Forest Green Rovers.
Once upon a time there was a little club on a hill which was the luckiest club around, they stayed in the Conference year after year.
One day a rich eco-Prince took over. The rich prince was a clever man, who wanted to spend his money wisely – he said he had a long-term plan for the little club on the hill and bit by bit he set about making Forest Green Rovers a meaner, greener club fit for the 21st century.
Yes, after once again escaping relegation by the skin of their teeth everyone’s favourite AGM Cup contenders are using the summer to revamp their club crest. But will a new club badge really change the image of the team or is it another publicity stunt?
Since eco-millionaire and green guru Vince became the majority shareholder at the New Lawn there have been rumblings of change. Media savvy, Vince has never been one to shy away from a choice soundbite, so within his first few months at the club he professed to have no real knowledge of football, said he’d consider changing the first team strip to a pink shirt and said relegation wouldn’t really be the end of the world for the club. He’s not handed the manager a blank cheque but has given him his seal of approval, hailing David Hockaday as having the potential to be the ‘Fergie’ of non-league.
Then there was the burger ban. A committed vegan, Vince has banned the sale of red meat (and Bovril) at the New Lawn on match days and stopped the players eating it in their post-match meals. Now I’ve written about this at length elsewhere and it is very hard to weigh up whether it was a genuine eco-move, reflecting the chairman’s own beliefs or designed to generate column inches, it certainly got fans and locals talking about both and all publicity is good publicity to some extent.
Now the club has launched a consultation over plans for a new badge. In a neat little online presentation the marketing team outlines how the current badge (dating back to the 70s) ‘isn’t up for the job’ and admits it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Barcelona badge (whether this was intentional or not I don’t know.) If you were a club struggling on the pitch, who had say escaped relegation for the second season in a row by the skin of your teeth who would you look to for inspiration? Maybe one of the best clubs in the world? Maybe the club in the Champion’s League final, whose line up includes Lionel Messi? Maybe the club, which pretty much shares a crest with you?
Anyway the spiel, from the marketing team at Vince’s company Ecotricity, which is hosting the consultation says:
“One of the fairly urgent jobs we undertook since joining FGR was a review of the marketing of the non football activities – the Gym and the Conference and Event facilities. The Board of Director’s view was that the existing Five Valleys name and branding were not distinctive enough or even exclusive in the Stroud area.
“While working on alternative identities for this side of FGR we came to the conclusion that actually the right identity was that of the football club – Forest Green Rovers. One identity for the football and non football side of the club makes a great deal of sense – with the football heritage being the key.”
So far, so good – Vince has developed a very strong branding for Ecotricity and clearly has good business sense, a lot of this stuff is a no brainer, for example rebranding the ‘Five Valleys Conference Centre’ to something a bit more catchy, but…if the club is looking at conference facilities why effectively take away or at the very least curtail the popular carvery events with the meat ban (they now offer roast chicken and veggie alternatives) and surely if the football club is the important thing then have a look at what’s going on on the pitch first?
Forest Green escaped relegation by the slimmest of margins two years in a row. Last year they went down on the last day on goal difference only to be saved after Salisbury were booted out of the Conference, this year they were saved because Southport conceded more goals than them. Twice they needed a win or a draw on the last day of the season to guarantee safety, twice they didn’t get that draw and had to rely on another team’s result to save them, not ideal by any standard. Perhaps things will change over the summer but with most of the current squad being offered new contracts it’s hard to work out exactly how this will happen.
Anyway, back to the badge – the new design features a lion and a unicorn and looks pretty old-school. The consultation says:
“We’ve retained the old style football, the founding date of FGR (and the initials which are a key element) and we’ve introduced two powerful figures, the Lion and the Unicorn. These are heraldic figures, they signify national identity – and in the case of the Unicorn particularly, they are creatures of myth, the Unicorn being a figure from an enchanted forest. Through these figures we represent both national identity but also the identity ‘Forest Green’ transcends from being a geographic location only, to something else as well.”
That’s quite a bit to take in – there is also a detailed, annotated badge, explaining everything from the font to the use of colour. You can’t fault the marketing team for being comprehensive in their consultation, asking the fans isn’t something other clubs have always done when they’ve brought in new crests. Reaction so far has been mixed and some fans are, rightly, pointing out the club’s problems are on the pitch and not off it.
There has always been mixed reaction when a club changes its badge – take Chelsea for example. Like FGR their rich owner made his money in the energy market and although Chelsea are 16 years younger than FGR they’ve had a couple of badge changes over the years; their first one had a Chelsea pensioner on it, then three different lion related designs. The last two designs were introduced by the new owners at the time, stamping their own identity on the club, although what a meek-looking yellow lion looking over its shoulder says about Ken Bates I don’t know…The most recent Chelsea badge was brought in back in 2004, after fans demanded a return to the pre-Bates era crest. Gloucester City, FGR’s near neighbours and one-time tenants, have changed their badge around four times in the last 20 years, adopting the crest of the city, adding a tiger etc, with relatively little fuss and little bother each time, the current effort reflects none of the club’s history but is instantly recognisable and since Gloucester have very little in terms of off the pitch infrastructure to worry about at the moment it is job done. But you only have to look to the North-East to another team which plays in black and white stripes to see how controversial it can be to tinker with something which is loved and recognised by fans, removing two white stripes from Newcastle United’s new shirt has managed the impossible – to make Mike Ashley even more unpopular with the Geordie nation.
And there is something with the new FGR badge, which manages to look so old while being very new, which bothers me. On the DVD commentary to Fight Club, Edward Norton talked about ‘manufactured nostalgia,’ the new VW Beetle and the retro-is-cool kind of culture and this is what FGR are doing by rebranding with something which looks ‘faux historic.’
Fair enough, FGR has a great history – not just in its recent years of relegation escapology – but I’m not sure a lion and a unicorn genuinely reflects this. With Vince’s green ethos and Ecotricity’s brand awareness I was expecting a bit more, the man has made his millions with turbines and is known for his eco-fuelled supercar – he is the saviour of FGR, who were teetering on the brink of the financial abyss before he got involved, surely a new badge should reflect this? Why not just have a windmill on it? Or Ecotricity’s green union jack which dominates their head office next to Stroud railways station? Or something, which reflects the ‘green’ ness of the club, which is sure to be a direction in which the club will move in the coming years?
To some non-league fans Forest Green are viewed as the “League of Gentleman” of the Conference, a local club for local people, the only village in the league, set on the top of a hill in the Gloucestershire countryside, which on a wet weekday evening could easily pass for Royston Vasey . They couldn’t be further away from the likes of Lincoln City and Grimsby or any of the former League giants. So it is easy to understand any desire to reinvent the image of the club, to kill off the image of ‘the little club on the hill’ and to create a new focus but adding a unicorn and talk of an ‘enchanted forest’ doesn’t really do this, unless they are trying to reflect on the club’s amazing ability to escape the drop in which case its probably quite apt.
The consultation is open until May 16 and whether it will be happily ever after on the pitch will have to wait until next season.
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