Drained and emotional on the Wembley turf, victorious captain Liam Noble hails a “little village club” to the TV microphones thrust into his face. Double scoring match-winner Kaiyne Woolery repeats the phrase: “Such a small village.”
Manager Mark Cooper makes it a hat-trick in post-match references: “It is an unbelievable achievement to put a village team in the Football League.”
Frequently used as an insult in footballing terms, Forest Green Rovers – the English Football League’s newest and smallest ever club – wear that particularly diminutive badge with pride.
After three consecutive seasons in the National League play-offs, and a second year in a row at Wembley, ‘the little club on a hill’ will finally be amongst the top 92, after beating Tranmere Rovers 3-1 in the final.
That hill upon which Forest Green sits belongs to Nailsworth – part of the Stroud district in the Cotswolds, with a population of less than 6,000. To put that into cliched footballing demography context: if you took every man, woman and child from Nailsworth to the Ricoh Arena, where FGR will face Coventry in League Two next season, they wouldn’t even fill 20% of the stadium.
“I’m quite looking forward to going to the Ricoh Arena. I think that will be quite special,” Dale Vince, the club’s owner and chairman, tells The Set Pieces. “I haven’t actually thought much about the away trips yet.”
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Vince isn’t the most typical of football club owners. For those unfamiliar with his story, the 55-year-old is a self-made green energy tycoon, and former new age traveller, whose multi-million company Ecotricity adorns Forest Green’s vivid green kit.
He was awarded ‘special dispensation’ to avoid wearing a tie and jacket in Wembley’s royal box for the final, and most importantly he is revolutionising the way things are done in football with regards to ethical sustainability.
In seven years, Vince has overseen the club’s transformation from part-time, perennial relegation battlers (often surviving by the thinnest of margins) into a fully-professional, ‘league-ready’ outfit, complete with an all-vegan stadium menu, organic pitch, plans for a new 5,000-seater wooden ground and much loftier on-field ambitions.
“Our aim is to get to the Championship,” he says with the flat confidence of a man who has done the maths. “Our analysis is that we can sustain that from within Gloucestershire, with our catchment, with the new ground. To be a vegan Championship club would be great for our work and message. League Two is a step on our journey. The higher up we go the bigger the platform we have for our message.”
Vince became majority shareholder and chairman of Forest Green in the autumn of 2010, shortly after the club had avoided relegation on goal difference. He admits that he only got involved initially in order to prevent a 100-year-old club and central part of the local community from going under.
“It began like stepping into a pit that felt daunting and bottomless in terms of effort and the things that needed doing. I got involved, just to help out a little bit with cash flow,” Vince explains. “But the problems were far bigger and people at the club were telling me I needed to be the chairman. I said ‘I really don’t’, but the reality was either seeing the club fold, or actually become completely involved.
“That step was a real step into the unknown and what followed was two or three years of really hard work from everybody to turn the club around. That was a bigger job than I ever expected or wanted and we fought through that and two or three years later we got through and it started to become much more fun.”
Despite his immersion into the workings of the club, Vince jokes that he has “no idea what being a football chairman is supposed to feel like”. However, after seven years, he appears to be making a reasonable fist of it.
On the organic pitch, one of the key players in helping secure promotion for Forest Green has been Drissa Traore. Dubbed by some fans as the ‘Conference Kante’, the Ivorian central midfielder has been an essential component in implementing manager Cooper’s passing style and keeping the engine room ticking in one of the least forgiving leagues in English football.
“Objectively, I totally think we can make it,” says Traore when asked if the club can match the chairman’s grand ambitions. “Last year I was in League One with Swindon. I know the level there, and I think that with the team we have we’ll do fine in the League.”
One of four non-UK players in the squad, the former Ivory Coast Under-20 international has had an unusual trajectory to the heart of Gloucestershire. He had spells with Swindon and Notts County, and most notably came through the fabled academy of Le Havre, where he trained and played alongside Premier League stars Riyad Mahrez and Paul Pogba.
Traore recalls that Mahrez was the more obviously talented back in those days, but it is Manchester United’s world-record signing with whom he is still in contact and who he still talks to about his game.
“I still speak with him [Pogba] twice a week,” says Traore. “We’re like brothers. The other day I took some friends from here to a United game and they got to meet Paul, which was really nice. He’s a nice guy. The same [as back in the academy]. He’s humble. He likes to laugh, he loves life. It’s really nice to know him.”
Much like Vince, Traore clearly revels in the footballing spotlight, but sees the play-off final as a stepping stone to further success. He views his ‘brother’ Pogba’s story as one he can learn from.
“We were young. He [Pogba] didn’t play much with the youth team. You could never tell he was going to become a great player like that, famous like that. He just worked hard and when you work hard anything can happen.
“Of course [I have the same ambition]. You always learn next to people like this. They give you good advice and you have to take what they give you to improve and maybe get to their level. That’s what we are working for.”
For the moment though, Traore has become a firm fan favourite for his efforts at Forest Green, and has apparently settled well into countryside life as the club now prepare for the next steps. He jokes about being able to play with Forest Green on FIFA next season, and backs (other than himself) Christian Doidge and Keanu Marsh-Brown to maybe boast the best stats on the team.
For Vince, the added media attention that comes with being part of the top four tiers is only a good thing. He acknowledges the well-publicised failures of mismanagement within English football that has left far too many proud institutions in tatters or extinct, but insists Forest Green will not become another flash in the pan to be ditched and left crumbling at the whims of one erratically benevolent individual.
“In five years we want to be in League One and in our new stadium,” he adds.
While the mock ups of the proposed Zaha Hadid designed stadium as the centrepiece of a 100 acre ‘eco park’ look deliberately stunning and attention grabbing – particularly for the level of football – Vince claims he wants all aspects of the club to go beyond surface, suggesting parallels between the wider ethos and the aesthetics of the new ground.
“We want to be ‘enduring’ rather than eye-catching,” he maintains. “Everything we do is about sustainability.”
Sustaining League football status will be the next challenge for English football’s biggest small club.