After another close shave with relegation last year Forest Green Rovers have enjoyed a decent start to the season, they’ve picked up a few points, turned down an offer from Luton for striker Reece Styche, who then signed a new deal to keep him at the New Lawn and seen six of their players named in the England C squad.

But once again the non-football stuff is still troubling some of the fan base.

Back in May I wrote about how Forest Green Rovers were undergoing a little off the pitch rebrand, a new club crest, a ‘removal’ of red meat from the menu on match days and at events, a tying together with Ecotricity, the energy company run by chairman Dale Vince.

A former new age traveller, Vince has very strong eco-ethics – he drives an electric car, has an electric motorbike and is a green-energy evangelist. He is a committed vegan, he supports local environmental schemes such as the Bee Guardians and without shadow of a doubt saved Forest Green Rovers from oblivion when he became the major shareholder around this time last year.

He is also a very shrewd businessman, who has turned Ecotricity into a big, successful brand.

And therein surely lies the key to some of the long-term plans for the club, outlined on the natty new website (which includes Ecotricity’s green union jack down the sides, obviously).

Dale’s missive reads as follows (I’ve put the key bits in italics):

“Forest Green Rovers is an important part of the local community in Stroud (where we’re based) and a significant employer.  It’s a football club with serious heritage too, being over 100 years old.   It needed saving, it was local to us, and we were able – those were the first three ingredients.  The compelling final ingredient was the opportunity to use football as a ‘new channel’ for our message, for our work – which is about sustainability and bringing it to all walks of life.  It’s about greening up Britain.

“At FGR we have the opportunity to create a truly sustainable football club, which would be a world first.  Somewhere we can demonstrate all of our thinking and technology, and through that engage with a new, large and passionate audience.  A global audience ultimately.  It’s the chance to introduce some Eco into the world of sport, and not just football – as we’ve quickly discovered through our link up with Gary Neville and Sustainability in Sport.”

So far so good, it is natural someone with such an affinity with all things sustainable would put his personality into the club, he saved it, its his choice what he does. But why turn the club vegan?

The statement on the website says:
”Last autumn we took Red Meat off the club menus, and achieved National and International coverage (and plaudits) for the move.  Over time the food at the club will become vegetarian then vegan, for strong environmental and health reasons.  This will be a bold statement and unique positioning.”

It is bold and it is unique, but in whose interests is it?

The new menu – helpfully available to download over at our friends The Ball Is Round – boasts power salads and fairtrade milkshakes, very Stroud (its a FairTrade town, has a great farmers market, very hippy friendly) but not very football. That said, Nailsworth, the village where FGR are based is a mainly middle-class, fairly right-on place (also FairTrade) – the power salads and milkshakes aren’t that far away from the luxury bread shop and fancy bistros down the hill.
Not that the milkshakes will necessarily be on the menu in the future of course. The vegan thing will certainly be a first, it will win FGR eco-plaudits but football clubs are more than publicity toys – they are businesses too. FGR play at the New Lawn, it has conferencing facilities and a pub both of which bring in important revenue – but the groups, organisations and businesses who will actively choose a vegan venue are limited. Less than 2% of the UK population were estimated to be vegan in 2007, a figure which may have increased a little since then, but probably not drastically.

There is also the small matter of alcohol. Don’t let this gross you out, but bits of fish are involved in the brewing process – Google ‘finings’ if you want to know more. A few brands make vegan beer now, but not many. Vegan alternatives, like gluten-free, additive-free and to some extent meat-free, products do cost more and unless FGR don’t want to make profit these costs will have to be passed on to the fans. The new menu is pretty pricey by non-league standards, making it increasingly costly for visitors to the New Lawn who want a half-time snack. But then food prices are going up everywhere, along with programmes and entrance fees.

There is the health argument – and to some extent the club should be applauded for offering something new and healthy for the fans –  but why are sugary drinks still on sale. The red meat ban gained plenty of column inches. No burgers, no hot-dogs and none of the famous cottage pie which used to be on sale in the Green Man bar at the New Lawn is one thing, but claiming its on health grounds and continuing to sell chips sends out a mixed message, even if they are ‘hand cut maris piper chips’ at £3 a pop.

And although the players aren’t allowed to have red meat on match days they don’t seem to be *that* bothered about the plans to become a veggie club and eventually a vegan, a few of them were in Gloucester Nandos this week, blathering on on Twitter about how they were looking forward to chicken which is unlikely to be free-range or organic. There are plenty of successful vegan athletes, a bigger statement would be a vegan team, the players acting as role models for the fans – but would the players agree?

There have been accusations by some fans that their chairman “doesn’t care” and is “dictating” his views but I’d suggest that the move towards FGR being vegan illustrates how much he does care about his beliefs, its just that they may not necessarily marry with what some people would see as the business of running a football club and pleasing all the fans all the time. If he is taking a hit on the costs of the dietary revolution then so be it, it may not seem like great business-sense but this man saved the club, he has thrown money into it – making huge profits solely from Forest Green Rovers may not be on the agenda, he has one business which does that already.

It is pretty clear the amount of publicity and attention created by using the club as a model of sustainability will outweigh the need to make serious money from the club – more customers signing up for Ecotricity, more investment into green tech and sustainable energy means more money to potentially be invested into the club. With FGR now shadowing the Ecotricity brand and ethos the club has become a useful PR tool or ‘model channel’, to refer back to the original statement, to highlight the green technology, show how businesses can become environmentally sustainable and showcase the Ecotricity message to a tee.

But then the counter argument would be to question what is more important – a club which is environmentally sustainable or a club which is financially sustainable? While Ecotricty prop up FGR the first will be the target but if (and there is no suggestion that this will happen) Vince walks away then the latter will be vital. But that is slightly pessimistic, just over a year ago Forest Green were on the verge of a significant financial meltdown – they are now tipped as one of the teams to do very well this year – they would not be there without Vince or the Ecotricity team.
Forgoing milk in your tea, a burger or a ham roll is a small price to pay if you want to see your team do well.

Look at the new address for the New Lawn, they’ve renamed the access road, it is now called Another Way, seriously.  It might not be popular but creating a green, sustainable club it is another way of thinking.

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