Forest Green Rovers & Kettering Town: Non-League Swings & Roundabouts
My club, Kingstonian (Ks), won the FA Trophy, at “the old” Wembley Stadium, in 1999 and 2000, a fact which looks more remarkable with each passing season, as the Ks ply their nomadic trade in and around the mid-to-lower reaches of the Isthmian League’s Premier Division. Yet the swings and roundabouts of our opponents’ outrageous subsequent fortunes would have seemed even more remarkable at the time.
On 14th May 2000, when Ks best Kettering Town 3-2, a year after overcoming Forest Green Rovers 1-0, if you had told me what those fates would be, I have would have struggled to comprehend. Mostly because I was horribly drunk for some days afterwards (FA Trophy celebrations followed by a week-long Trade Union Conference in Blackpool).
But partly because if you had told me one team would edge up the (Football) Conference after two relegation reprieves, win promotion in a third consecutive play-off attempt and be ‘certified carbon-neutral’ this year, while the other would suffer multiple relegations (including two at once), lose their ground and nearly lose their existence, I would have done three things. (1) Suggest shorter sentences (sorry about that), (2) got the two teams completely the wrong way round and (3) wondered WTF ‘carbon-neutral’ was and how a football team could be it.
Mind you, had you outlined Kingstonian’s chaotic, nomadic (almost Kettering-esque) intervening 18 years – from the heights of those two Wembley wins and the financial semi-heights of a fourth-round proper replay in the FA Cup, to the depths of administration within SEVENTEEN months – I’d possibly have sobered up (though possibly not…the beer was cheap in Blackpool and there was a LOT of conference week left at the end of the expenses).
In truth, Forest Green’s and Kettering’s 21st centuries were unexpected mostly because of their 20th centuries. Forest Green’s upward trajectory was clear in 1999, their first season in non-league football’s top-flight, when they became the first team to qualify for FA Trophy and FA Vase finals (both at Wembley), having won the 1982 Vase, the knock-out competition for clubs from the lower levels of the former ‘non-league pyramid (‘Step 5’ and below of the current ‘English National League System’).
While Kettering had long been one of non-league’s biggest names, mixing Southern League titles and high-profile, occasionally ‘giant-killing’ FA Cup runs with regular attempts at election to the Football League, albeit with as much electoral success as Nigel Farage domestically and occasionally getting NO votes whatsoever. And in 1979, Kettering were founder members of the ‘Alliance Premier League,’ the first-ever national non-league, erm, league, while Forest Green had just taken their first few baby steps outside Gloucestershire county leagues, joining the Hellenic League in 1975.
Kettering’s population figure in the 2001 Census was 51,060. The Poppies’ Rockingham Road ground could hold over 6,000, large enough, if you let people on the pitch, to accommodate the entire population of the Gloucester village of Nailsworth, 2001 population 7,190, (very) high above which Forest Green (“the little club on the hill”) were based – the road up to their ground, ‘The Lawn,’ feeling like a one-in-one gradient in certain supporters’ minibuses (he says from still scarring personal experience).
On the pitch, though, there was little between the sides, only five points in 2000. Ks were narrow and only narrowly-deserving winners of both finals, matches which matched the weather; overcast in 1999, as Ks won 1-0; bright, breezy and sunny as Ks came from 2-1 down to win 3-2.
And the trends continued. Kettering cascaded from Conference runners-up in 1999 (pre-promotion play-off days) to relegation in 2001, eight points above Ks and a more vital five points between them and Forest Green. They briefly became the dictionary definition of ‘yo-yo’ club, with another Southern League title in 2002 followed by relegation in 2003, this time to the Isthmian League, years to delight the groundhoppers among their regular fanbase, if no-one else.
In 2001, Forest Green lost another FA Trophy final by the only goal, at Villa Park. Their cup prowess paid FA Cup financial dividends throughout the noughties, with plenty of (relative) giant-killing and qualification for two lucrative third round propers before the decade was out. But they needed luck in the league, reprieved from relegation in 2005 and 2010 by the ill-fates of Northwich Victoria and Salisbury City respectively.
In-between Rovers’ relegation reprieves, the Poppies halted their slide and garnered more national attention. Their mid-table Isthmian League finish in 2004 gained them access to non-league football’s newly-created second-tier, Conference North (and more delight for Kettering’s hoppers). In late 2005, they survived 39 high-profile days with Paul Gascoigne as manager. Their 2007 Conference North title returned them to non-league’s top flight (more and more hopper delight). And in 2009, they reached the FA Cup’s fourth round proper, losing 4-2 to Premier League Fulham.
But, like Kingstonian, reaching the FA Cup’s last 32 did not provide financial protection from frighteningly speedy administration. In September 2008, Kettering chairman Imraan Ladak understated comprehensively that “there might be an issue” and “a bit of a complicated situation” regarding the Rockingham Road lease, which was due to expire in 2013…definitely an issue and not that complicated.
However, for many reasons, negotiating a “ground solution” with ground owner and, surprise, property developer Ben Pickering was beyond Ladak. This led to fan speculation in November 2009 about Kettering “ground-sharing or moving out of the borough” to any number of possible locations, including “dare I say it Rushden and Diamonds.”
That speculation became terrifyingly accurate in August 2011, when they moved into Rushden’s Nene Park ground, a mere month after Rushden’s return journey the Football League ended in administration. And Kettering’s first Nene Park season was an on-and-off-field disaster, which also ended in administration, in June 2012, ‘thanks’ to debts of £1.2m. The Poppies were spectacularly but excusably relegated and chose to body-swerve Conference North, successfully applying to re-join their old Southern League stomping ground, an effective double-relegation.
But despite voluntary arrangements with their 71 creditors, the Poppies’ penury continued. They left Nene Park in October 2012 because they couldn’t pay the electricity bill. And they completed another inevitable, excusable relegation season at Corby Town’s Steel Park, before returning to Kettering town via a ground-share arrangement at United Counties League Burton Park Wanderers’ Latimer Park, to begin life in Southern League Division One Central.
In diametrically contrasting circumstances, Rovers moved ground too, leaving their ‘Lawn’ in 2006 for the ‘New Lawn’ literally yards away. Indeed, significant parts of the old Lawn were ‘literally’ moved to the New Lawn, including the ‘Barnfield Terrace,’ which was transferred brick-by-(sponsored)-brick.
Ambitious ground moves can go either way on the pitch, of course (see West Ham two seasons ago for details). However, like the journey to the Lawns from Nailsworth, Rovers’ only way was up. After their second relegation reprieve, Rovers were taken over by rich hippy vegan and erstwhile ‘New Age Traveller’ Dale Vince OBE, owner of Gloucestershire-based green energy company, Ecotricity. Vince’s success once led to him being interviewed by leading sustainability website ‘treehugger.com’ (no, really). And his Rovers arrival heralded an era every bit as out-to-(vegan)-lunch as his background.
On the pitch (aside from the assignment of ‘robot lawn mowers’ to its care), Rovers narrowly escaped relegation in 2011 by conventional means (one point) and opened a three-year residency in tenth place before promotion pushes began in earnest.
Behind the scenes, Vince actively sought ‘carbon-neutrality’; solar panel-produced electricity and solar-powered lawn-mowers; a pitch fertilised with Scottish seaweed; and vegan diets for players and fans (with care hopefully taken to keep the fertiliser from the diets). And on this organically-fertilised, solar-power-mown pitch, Rovers grew/flowered/blossomed/insert your own horticultural pun.
They embarked on more back-to-back-to=back playing-off, having finished fifth, second and third between 2015 and 2017, as the Conference became the ‘National League.’ They lost again at Wembley, 3-1 to Grimsby Town, in 2016’s play-off final before beating Tranmere Rovers 3-1 twelve months later. Last season, they avoided a return to ‘Non-League Paper’ coverage by a point, withstanding Barnet’s late run despite poor last-ditch form. But Rovers are currently unbeaten after 12 games, in the play-off places only because they’ve drawn eight.
Inevitably, but not entirely unfairly, Rovers attracted criticism for ‘bought success’ as “the little club on the hill” became a League Two outfit via, among some positive moves, multi-million-pound annual losses. Vince argued, as a “green industrialist” would, that the debt was sustainable, even when Rovers reached what he called in December 2015 “peak losses,” £5.4m over the previous two years. Rovers lost £4.6m over the next two years, so Vince was right-ish. But it didn’t peak Rovers’ popularity.
“We’ve had a lot of animosity towards Forest Green,” promotion-winning (and ex-Kettering) manager Mark Cooper noted, correctly, after their play-off triumph. “When I played for them, they were a friendly little club, part-time. Everyone loved them because they weren’t a threat. Once they became a threat, nobody liked them.”
But Rovers/Vince remained ambitious, announcing plans in 2015 for a £100m “Eco Park’ ‘sports facility’ and business park. The business park was shelved last year but the stadium, wait for this, “made almost entirely out of wood” is currently surviving a properly tortuous approval process. Watch this (green) space, I guess.
Back on planet Earth, Kettering halted their cascade down the non-league ‘system,’ an occurrence widely, joyously linked to Ladak’s departure in June 2013. Division One Central provided more-and-more groundhopper delight but their second season there, 2014/15, ended in play-off final defeat to Slough Town. They won the division in 2015, only to lose last season’s Premier Division play-off final to… Slough Town.
However, they currently top the new Southern Premier Division Central (hopper…delight…etc…), ten points above AFC…Rushden and Diamonds, having won seven of eight league games. And Kettering Town’s hopes of their own home again in Kettering town are high. Bids to repurchase Rockingham Road had been rejected and it was demolished (for housing, natch) last November. However, last month, the club announced their purchase of “an area of land in the town, situated off Scott Road” for, potentially, that home of their own.
Kettering cascading no more… hopefully.
Size isn’t everything, of course (PLEASE!!). However, size of finance is most things throughout professional and semi-professional football. The switch in the clubs’ fortunes over the last 40 years was genuinely unpredictable. But it is part of the grim fascination (polite term) of 21st-century English football that their fortunes could just as possibly switch back.
Forest Green must hope that Vince doesn’t become a 2020’s version of the individually over-ambitious Ladak. While Kettering must hope that the worst times are behind them and that those times have given them a patience and resolve to eventually reach “off Scott Road.”
May the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune be kind to the good people at both clubs.