Forest Green Rovers 3 Exeter City 3
Saturday 2 December 2017
I went to Rovers’ old home, which was in virtually the same place as this one, in the Nineties. I got hopelessly lost and couldn’t find anywhere to park, eventually arriving at half time. Now here we were again – at Britain’s only vegan football ground, in the smallest community ever to support a Football League club.
The conversation en route between John and myself was less than enthusiastic. It went something like “We should have left this, they’re moving ground.” “Not for years though.” “They don’t serve meat, or proper beer.” “Smuggle in a sausage roll, then.”
For the best part of a century Forest Green existed in more or less happy obscurity, rarely arousing strong passions in anyone other than Cirencester fans and farmers whose sheep were disturbed by stray footballs. The most significant event in their history was a run of three successive title wins in the Stroud Premier League during the Thirties.
Their ground at The Lawn was best known for being in the middle of nowhere and sitting on top of an epically steep hill. Rovers started playing there in 1889, and over the next hundred years it grew into a respectable if unspectacular venue, featuring terraces more uncovered than otherwise and a small stand – pleasant in spring or late summer, but damp and cold when November drizzle rolled across from the Severn.
The club’s profile changed for ever in 1982 when they achieved a unique Hellenic League and FA Vase double. At Wembley they beat Rainworth Miners’ Welfare 3-0, while the title win meant Bob Mersell’s side were promoted into the Southern League’s Midland Division. Rovers would remain there for thirteen seasons, including a brief but unhappy spell when they were rebranded as Stroud FC.
This film of the Final was recently rediscovered. Rovers are playing in appropriate, but at the time unfamiliar, green. Andy Leitch – a West Country non-League journeyman once of Swansea – got two of the goals. The other came from captain Kenny Norman, excitingly described by BBC Points West as “chisel-chinned.”
On my previous visit I met then chairman Trevor Horsley. For 20 years Trevor could justifiably claim to be Forest Green Rovers. When he took over in 1994, he sorted out on and off-field crises and restored their traditional name. Taking Rovers out of the Midland Division in 1997 and straight through the Southern Premier the following season, he oversaw both their establishment as a solid level 5 club and the development of The Lawn to Football League standard.
The move a few hundred yards up the road in 2006 was the final piece in the jigsaw, giving Rovers the infrastructure and facilities they needed to grow and the potential that attracted green energy industrialist Dale Vince to invest.
The years since Vince took over as chairman from Trevor in 2010 are well-documented. So too are his unique ethos and branding, which jump out at you from every corner of the New Lawn. But for me the much-hyped vegetables, robotic lawnmowers and sustainability diminish the impact of a remarkable success story – on the pitch, but also in terms of a community brought together. Admittedly there aren’t many of them, but that isn’t really the point.
And one final thing – to be green you don’t have to wear green. Bring back black and white stripes!
Off the M5, through Stroud, and the New Lawn is in Nailsworth – or rather on top of a hill that has Nailsworth at the bottom. Houses on one side (the site of the old ground) and fields on the other. Charming English countryside or werewolf territory, depending on your viewpoint. Most people seem to park on the housing estate over the road – we certainly did, and this left us in the mother of all gridlocks after the game. One way in, one way out. The current proposals for yet another new ground began to make sense.
As a result of Vince’s involvement, Forest Green are well known for being, well, green. They recycle anything that moves and only sell vegan products. To reinforce their hipster credentials the new ground will be built from houmus. Or something. As for the current one, well, it’s nice enough. One big side stand; two diddy end terraces, roofed; one long side terrace, unroofed. Today this held the best part of a thousand Exeter fans, who were clearly thrilled when the rain started.
Flesh and wine
Flesh, as I said, is banned. I had a pretty nice Indian bhajii thing from a stall outside the away end, but it was downhill (no pun intended) after that. All the pubs are in the village, and John had a bowel complaint so clearly wasn’t up for hill walking. Into the club at the ground, then, for some beer made without finings (or anything else remotely flavoursome). John’s poor bowel wasn’t improved. I’d heard great things about the Quorn pies, but my only printable observation is this – why are vegetarians obsessed with disguising vegetables as meat? You don’t see us carnivores painting sausages orange and pretending they’re carrots.
I like Exeter City. I was born in Exeter, I used to write for their programme, and most of my family support them. So despite all the Rovers fans we met being absolutely lovely (even the rural youths chanting about Cheltenham scum were quite sweet), I wanted them to win.
Wearing unfamiliar purple to avoid their red and white clashing with Rovers’ green and black, City went behind to a one-on-one midway through the first half. They were under the cosh until some inspired subbing saw them first equalise with a header, then go ahead with a Jayden Stockley thunderbolt ten minutes later.
If the game as a whole was an entertaining rough and tumble, then the last five minutes were madness. First, Scott Laird poked home an equaliser. Then, with Exeter reeling, Rovers broke for what looked like an injury-time winner from Christian Doidge. But Stockley hadn’t finished either, and headed the game’s sixth goal right at the death. Even then the excitement wasn’t over, and Exeter almost pinched the tie with a last minute effort that was cleared off the line.
Time to go out into the mist, then. Thanks for the ride. You have lovely sheep.
Teams and goals
Forest Green Rovers: Collins, Bennett, Roberts, Iacovitti, James (Stevens 82), Collins, Laird, Wishart. Doidge, Bugiel (Correia Gomes 65). Unused subs: Cooper, Randall-Hurren, Russell.
Exeter City: Pym, Sweeney, Archibald-Henville (Harley 55), Moore-Taylor, Wilson (Tillson 65), James, Taylor, Boateng, Moxey, Stockley McAlinden (Reid 79). Unused subs: Woodman, Hamon, Jay, Edwards.
Goals: Forest Green: Doidge 26, 90+2, Laird 88. Exeter: Moore-Taylor 58, Stockley 64, 90+4.