By Matthew Stock
Set amongst the rolling hills of the Cotswolds in the south-west of England, Forest Green Rovers are a team eager to start their new season to try and win promotion from English soccer's lower divisions. While that ambition remains to be fulfilled, they may have already achieved a distinction that puts much bigger teams to shame -- to be the 'greenest' soccer club in the world.
It's a mission that can largely be attributed to Forest Green Rovers' chairman Dale Vince, owner of green energy firm Ecotricity. Vince got involved with the club in 2010 when it was facing a less-than-rosy future, with financial problems and an outdated ground. He saw the club, with its 100-year heritage, as an important part of his local community and a significant local employer.
Ecotricty aims to bring what they call the 'Green Revolution' to as many people as possible and soccer was a largely unexplored avenue to continue their mission, Vince said.
"We thought, you know what, what we can do with this is actually bring our message to a new world, the world of soccer -- relatively untouched by eco stuff. Our work is on the issues of energy, transport and food; and within soccer you find that, like a stick of rock, written through the middle. So we decided to dive in, rescue the club, create the greenest soccer club perhaps in the world and use that as a way to reach a totally different audience," Vince told Reuters.
With the new era underway at The New Lawn in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, Vince and his team set out to make Forest Green Rovers the most sustainable soccer club in Britain, and probably the world. This included implementing a raft of environmentally positive initiatives that would harness the power of nature and reduce their carbon footprint.
A week ahead of the start of the new soccer season, the finishing touches were being applied to the club's organic pitch -- a world first, they say. It was created with help from the Soil Association to confirm its organic credentials, as well as to develop an approach to the certification of organic sports pitches for other clubs.
"We're different to every other soccer league club and any other soccer club here in the UK. We do things organically; we use no chemicals or pesticides to bring the best out of the turf. So that means we focus on our soil biology a lot more than other clubs would," said head groundsman Matt Rainey.
To keep the turf lush and green, water that would normally end up down the drains is collected from under the pitch to recycle, while rainwater is collected from the stadium rooftops. A borehole also provides access to the local spring water.
To help cut the grass, Forest Green Rovers became the UK's first team to employ a robotic mower - dubbed the 'mow-bot - that uses GPS technology to automatically mow the pitch without the need for human intervention. German team Bayern Munich are one of the few teams to also use the technology.
The 'mow-bot', along with 10 percent of the club's electricity need, is powered by 180 roof-mounted solar panels. They also supply power to several plug-in stations for electric cars outside the stadium.
Four years ago the club implemented one of their boldest - and most controversial - sustainability initiatives: removing red meat from the match-day menu for both players and supporters. Gone were the traditional staples of soccer match concession stands such as burgers, sausages and meat-pies. Instead, the club brought in vegetarian foods using seasonal, fresh and organic food wherever possible. The club even sells local, organic beer.
For the start of this season, the club has now gone entirely vegan - meaning no white meat or fish either. Though, Vince says, this was secretly the case last year too.
"We are vegan; fully from the start of this season. Although all of last season the outlets here, the food outlets, were actually vegan - we just didn't tell anyone. Nobody noticed. The important thing is that the food is good. If the food is good that's all that really matters. And I prefer not to talk about what's not in the food, but talk about what the food is," he said.
In their bid drive up the standard of soccer match food, they enlisted the help of chef Nicholas Allan who owns a cafe in near-by Stroud. He conceded that it's a change that some fans may find hard to stomach, but is confident of winning over any die-hard meat-eaters.
"The fans are going to get used to it; there'll be times when they'll grumble," said Allan. "If we can just keep the food tasting delicious and really do something that's exciting - the flavors are robust - I think they'll come round. People will miss their meat - but it's only for the game."
And it's a paradigm shift that Vince believes much bigger soccer teams could benefit from.
"I think soccer has a bad rep for rubbish food. It deserves it, I think, on the whole. So I think that other clubs can learn from that. Why can't we have great food at a soccer game? We should be able to. So it's partly eco, partly match-day experience; at least from a food perspective. We're, like, fifth tier of English soccer, so it's a bit different here from what it's like in the Premiership, for example, where they're ahead of the curve compared to a lot of clubs at our level, let's say. But I would say - on the eco front - we'll be ahead of that," said Vince.
Midfielder Rob Sinclair said all the players were behind the initiative, with only light-hearted dissent in the ranks: "You're obviously going to get the odd one making a joke of it, like "where's the chicken?" and that. But no, we all respect the chairman's views and we get on with it."
As supporters gathered for a pre-season friendly against Plymouth Argyle on Friday (July 31), the new menu was a winning formula according to staff at the Devil's Kitchen concession stand.
"It's really nice food, I've tried it myself and I really enjoy it - and I'm not a vegetarian. So if I like it, other people should like it I reckon," said staff member Sue. Her colleague Karen added her opinion of a new pie, made with meat-substitute Quorn: "I'm not a pie fan and I just recently tried the 'Q-Pie' and it's actually really nice!"
Younger fans, however, may need some convincing to give the new menu a go. When asked if he liked the food, one young supporter was candid in his answer but did suggested a sneaky alternative.
"I would prefer burgers... But you might be able to just nip down to the 'chippie' at half time just to go get a burger or something," said James, wearing a replica club shirt.
Forest Green Rovers begin their new campaign with an away trip to Altrincham on August 8.