Back in 1927, the London soccer club Arsenal signed a rather weedy and fragile young player, Eddie Hapgood. The game was brutal back then, and the team’s trainer got the 19-year-old into weight training and convinced him to give up his vegetarian diet. Hapgood became known for his physique and went on to captain both his club and England’s national team.
Whether it was the workouts or the meat that turned Hapgood from weakling to “man mountain” defender is debatable, but a popular belief persists—not totally unsupported by science—that humans need animal protein to perform at their best.
This notion seemed to have been firmly rebutted in the past few years, though, by the unlikely success in the English professional leagues of a village soccer team. Forest Green Rovers, from the edge-of-the-market town of Nailsworth, in the depths of the glorious Gloucestershire countryside, has since 2015 been considered the world’s first vegan soccer team, as well as the first to be certified carbon-neutral by the United Nations.
Bought by the green-energy industrialist Dale Vince in 2010, Forest Green went from strength to strength, gaining entry to the top soccer ranks in 2017, then being further promoted last year to only one division away from the premiership.
However, all did not go well this past season. The vegan village team bombed, with just six wins in 46 games, which means demotion back down to a lower division when the new season starts today. And it seems from AIR MAIL’s visit to their final home game last season, lost 0–3 in an anemic encounter with fellow strugglers Oxford United, that the more traditional locals are not happy.
As one stormy-faced, middle-aged Forest Green supporter said, leaving early after Oxford’s third goal, “What a load of bloody rubbish. Our lot look half asleep. They need a good bloody meal and less of this P.C. bollocks in the club.”
The fan just happened to be a dairy farmer, so he may be biased, but he was referring to Forest Green Rovers’ having become something of a one-stop shop for left-wing causes, largely at the behest of Vince.
A former New Age traveler—the U.K.’s class of latter-day hippies—the still popular Vince has ensured that the players and fans eat only vegan food on club premises, the pitch uses only organic fertilizer, there are grassy areas planted to attract butterflies, and power comes from a wind turbine in the verdant hills beyond the stadium.
“What a load of bloody rubbish. Our lot look half asleep. They need a good bloody meal and less of this P.C. bollocks in the club.”
More visibly, there are Amnesty International charity collectors around the grounds on match days and, a matter of some controversy, a large Palestinian flag flutters above the bleachers.
Vince, wearing a skull-and-crossbones scarf he bought from a camel market in Egypt, told AIR MAIL he started flying it after the Russo-Ukrainian war started. He believes that if we sanction Russia for Ukraine, we should also sanction Israel for Palestine.
Such head-on engagement in Middle Eastern politics by a rural English soccer club is only one of several unusual subplots surrounding Forest Green Rovers.
Another is the question of the club’s manager during much of their disastrous last season. You might expect the coach of a vegan soccer team to be a gentle soul, perhaps even a little diffident. Not so Duncan Ferguson, a six-foot-four, 51-year-old former striker who has the rare distinction of having been sent to prison for an on-field headbutt on an opposition defender—he got a three-month sentence in 1994 when he was playing with Glasgow Rangers.
He has three other assault convictions to his name: for a fight with a fisherman in a Scottish pub, for headbutting a policeman, and for punching and kicking a supporter on crutches. He has also twice caught burglars in his house, and on both occasions put them in the hospital. One tried unsuccessfully to sue him for assault.
In fact, a Finnish contemporary composer, Osmo Tapio Räihälä, was so taken with Ferguson’s heroically uncompromising rambunctiousness that he wrote and had performed an 11-minute “symphonic poem,” Barlinnie Nine, subtitled A Tribute to Duncan Ferguson.
Ferguson left Forest Green Rovers last month, remaining friends with Dale Vince, says the club Web site. He was very briefly—for just long enough to attract a raft of news headlines—superseded as a temporary measure by the first female coach of a men’s team. A permanent, male manager is now in place in time for the start of the season.
While the irrepressible Scotsman—soccer’s answer to Logan Roy—was still coaching, your reporter was frankly too timid to ask him if he was now a vegan. But we did ask Vince if he had persuaded his soon-to-be ex-coach to give up meat.
“I haven’t tried,” Vince says. “I don’t care too much. We like to show people there’s a different way to live and make their own minds up.”
Ferguson has three other assault convictions to his name: for a fight with a fisherman, for headbutting a policeman, and for punching and kicking a supporter on crutches.
The next unusual aspect to Forest Green Rovers’ improbable rise and possible fall concerns the involvement of the octogenarian, best-selling romance-slash-erotic-novelist, Jilly Cooper. Cooper lives a few miles from the stadium, and appears on a sideline banner that proclaims, Jilly Cooper loves Forest Green Rovers, alongside covers of five of her books.
AIR MAIL contacted the author, whose assistant said she couldn’t come to the phone because she was head-down completing her latest novel, which is set around a soccer club, and confirmed that Cooper did her research at Forest Green Rovers games.
The book’s title, Tackle!, is a double entendre that refers to what soccer players often do on the field and to the English slang for a gentleman’s undercarriage. Cooper has previously said that her publisher asked for more sex in the book, which possibly explains why she was too busy to speak.
Yet another unusual angle to the Forest Green Rovers saga is that the team announced last week it will have its own partner airline, Ecojet. The airline, naturally, was founded by Vince.
Vince says the short-haul planes will be conventionally powered for now, but will serve only vegan food on board. At some point, he says, Ecojet will fly electrically powered 12-seat (and, later, 84-seat) aircraft, on domestic U.K. routes to start.
“We’ll be in the air in 12 to 18 months,” he says. “As a team, we have to travel to places hundreds of miles away, and now we will be able to fly in a zero-carbon plane. We want to show that life under net zero doesn’t mean giving stuff up and living a life of denial. We have alternatives for everything.”
Dire match results aside, Forest Green Rovers have begun to attract global interest. There are now 100 fan clubs in 20 countries, across the U.S., Europe, China, and Brazil.
There is embryonic Forest Green Rovers fan interest in New York. The club’s official podcast, Heaven’s Devils, is produced in the city by two young American fans, who only give their names as Nathan and Shyam.
There is also an unofficial fan group, Forest Green Rovers NYC, run by a Montclair State University biology professor, Julian Keenan. He admits it’s been a struggle recruiting members, but there are fans in Brooklyn, and he’s working on getting meetings organized.
Keenan admits he hasn’t yet been to Nailsworth and is a little short on detailed knowledge. He was unaware, for example, that former coach Ferguson is, you might say, not your stereotypical vegan, and that the stadium flies the Palestinian flag.
“I’m a vegetarian, hard-core liberal. I drive electric cars, so I would say I’m 99 percent in,” says Keenan. “Like any political thing, you get a little wacky sometimes. That’s all I’d want to say on that.”
Based in London and New York, AIR MAIL’s Tech Columnist, Jonathan Margolis, spent more than two decades as a technology writer at the Financial Times. He is also the author of A Brief History of Tomorrow, a book on the history of futurology