It’s a crisp, sunny Saturday in late September, and I’m wrapped snug in a puffer jacket watching footballers in bright kits scurry around a pitch. They hurl complaints at the ref between taking corners. Fans shout commands like “Pressure!” and “Sort it out!” to no avail. The smell of chips wafts through the stadium as everyone braces themselves for a nail-biter—or a boring 0-0 draw. Either way, it’s a familiar experience. As a lifelong Arsenal supporter, I’ve spent my fair share of Saturday afternoons with my dad living the highs and lows (and low lows) of football fandom. I’ve just never been commissioned by an oat drink company to soak in the scene before—so, that’s a new wrinkle.
Which makes today a little different on a couple of levels. (Why would I be here otherwise?!) First, as mentioned, the oat drink company bit...strange. Second, I’m at New Lawn Stadium in Stroud—which is perched atop a hill in England’s Gloucestershire countryside—watching the world’s very first vegan, carbon-neutral football club play a football game.
The club in question is Forest Green Rovers (FGR), whose origins date back to the late 1800s, but whose eco-friendly ambitions began in 2010. That’s when Stroud local and British green-energy industrialist Dale Vince bought the team and started shaking things up. Today, only plant-based food is sold at New Lawn; players eat a strictly vegan diet when training; kits, neon green with a zebra-stripe pattern, are made from waste coffee grounds and recycled plastic; plans for a new all-wooden stadium (to be known as Eco Park) have been revealed; and the team has established a partnership with, you guessed it, Oatly. (As The Official Oat Drink of Forest Green Rovers Football Club, Oatly sponsors the club’s training shirts and matchday shorts and is the main dairy alternative for its home games.)
In terms of actual football playing, the club is also on the up. This season it’s been promoted to League One (the third league tier in the football hierarchy, after the Premier League and Championship) for the first time in its history. The team has attracted a lot of media attention since Vince took over, but I’m here to do some dogged, on-the-ground reporting about what it means to be a fan (or naysayer) of Forest Green Rovers—and how its commitment to sustainability adds to (or gets in the way of) watching a football game, drinking several pints of beer, and yelling irrationally. I’m here to ask the burning questions. Like, what does a football fan make of a vegan pasty?
Before we get into any of that, I’m first just thankful a taxi carted me up the hill to New Lawn. The driver tells me he often watches fans bent over as they trudge up it. Arriving a couple hours prior to a lunchtime kickoff against Exeter City, I see the club’s efforts on display front and center. From a water-refill station (which also dispenses reusable bottles) to “Pee to Pitch” portaloos (urine is filtered to fertilize the pitch), green credentials and efforts are signposted all over the stadium. At the entrance, there’s an eco-trail poster displaying “10 Points of Interest,” including the location of the electric-car charging bay and details on how rainwater is harvested to water the pitch. Elsewhere, you can learn about FGR’s harnessing of solar power and exactly why the club “gave meat the red card.”
Inside New Lawn I meet Jackie, vegan pasty in hand, and Paul, best friend to Jackie’s late father. Both are loyal FGR supporters—Paul missed only three away games last season—and champions of Dale Vince’s intervention. Jackie says the club probably would have folded without it, which prompts me to ask about the pasty, a staple of the stadium’s all-vegan menu.
“It tastes like an onion bhaji—it’s absolutely lush. The chips have got a lot better too,” she says. Paul interjects, “We’ve been crying out all season for curry sauce, and today they’ve finally put it on.” (Mental note to try the curry sauce later.) Paul admits he was apprehensive when meat came off the menu. “I hadn’t eaten vegan food before,” he says. “But now I hardly eat any meat at all. I’m not going vegan or vegetarian. I’ve just cut down.”
The FGR ethos has rubbed off on friends Gary and Matthew, too. Matthew even acknowledges the economics of the team’s green initiatives—from a fan’s very broad perspective of a team’s economics, that is: “You see [energy] bills going up, but with [our energy] all being renewable, you know we’re not paying through the nose like every other club—so that money’s being funneled back into the club.” Gary jumps in to comment on what he sees as a bigger change in football. “It’s not just Forest Green now. You see other clubs trying to be more eco-friendly—the word is getting out.”
The FGR ecosystem sounds downright charming when described by the club’s supporters, but I’m curious if away fans are as open-minded. Gary is reluctant to say, but I persist. “They chant, ‘You can shove your vegan burgers up your arse,’” he finally admits. He goes on to reveal that away fans are often seen brandishing inflatable carrots and other vegetables, which he and Matthew both describe as “good banter.”
Unsurprisingly, when I do speak with Exeter City fans, they’re more skeptical of the FGR way—though not totally dismissive. In the stadium’s designated bar for away fans, I chat with a group of young guys as they tuck into their vegan sausage rolls. One of them, Jordan, says, “The football’s always crap but the food’s nice. The mayonnaise is weird—it tastes like nail varnish.”
The loudest of the group, Lewis, is not having any of it with the vegan roll. “I want proper chicken and beef!” he shouts. (Of course, neither chicken nor beef are ingredients in traditional sausage rolls, but I keep quiet.) I ask if he’s tried the food, and he concedes that while it does taste like a normal roll, it’s not “proper.” “He doesn’t like it because it’s not clogging his arteries up,” says Jordan, whose only complaint is that there aren’t any pubs around the stadium.
I leave them to their debate and start chatting to another Gary (an Exeter City Gary this time) and his friend Mark. They’ve been to New Lawn before and have some thoughts on FGR’s philosophy—kind of. “I’m ambivalent about it,” says Gary. Same with the vegan menu. While Mark is keen to try the pasty, Gary is less convinced—and he’s not sure about the chips, either. I point out that chips are, by their nature, vegan, but he says they “don’t taste like chips here.” Before heading in, I ask for their predictions for the game. “It’s going to be awful, a dull 0-0 game,” says Gary. “We very rarely score up here.”
With Gary’s words ringing in my ears, I grab my seat in the front row. It might not be the Premier League, but it’s a thrill to be so close to the action. Within six minutes, Gary’s prediction is proven wrong. Exeter City scores, followed by another goal 20 minutes later (this time a penalty).
The atmosphere never gets aggressive. There are lots of families here; in the next row, two kids hold a handmade cardboard sign that reads “I love Forest Green Rovers, please can I have your shirt?” Looking around the stadium, I notice adverts for, predictably, green and local companies alike: Alongside a “Make vegan your goal” sign is one for a scaffolding company that reads, simply, “You get a better erection.” As much as the team takes its initiatives seriously, it also knows how to keep the mood light.
It’s just as well because Forest Green Rovers concede another goal in the 41st minute. With a second-half comeback unlikely, I go in search of food. I try a Q-Pie (the Q is for meat-substitute brand Quorn) and a burger. I eat in the Gym Bar, which has the vibe of a working men’s club or a village hall. As far as football stadium food goes, it’s not bad. Vegan but standard—which means it’s performing its duty. The highlight is my own massive pot of curry sauce to dip my chips into (shout-out to Paul).
For the second half, I head to the terraces, where young fans run up and down while parents watch the match with their heads in their hands. A fourth goal from Exeter City in the 83rd minute seals the fate of the Forest Green Rovers.
Back in the Gym Bar after the game, as I watch FGR fans solemnly sip pints of beer—because it does, in fact, suck to lose—I think again about what amounts to “proper” football stadium cuisine and reconsider the clashing attitudes of the two Garys. Maybe change boils down to immersing fans in an environment filled with “Pee to Pitch” portaloos and vegan sausage rolls. Somewhere they can learn to adapt, accept, and eventually support their teams’ sustainability efforts—because football is sacred, and fan loyalty shan’t be questioned.
In the end, FGR supporters don’t pay mind to chants about shoving vegan burgers up arses. They revel in the attention the club gets, which seems sensible. If I’ve learned one thing over the course of my own fandom: There are far more graphic (and creative) comments to hear directed at your team during a football game.