So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!
I’ve got a list of clubs that I want to visit more than others, and I’m gradually ticking them off. Some are really obvious: giants like Dortmund and Ajax, others are down to my own daft little reasons like Clapton, Orient and Hastings. Last time out, I was desperate to go to Huddersfield because I’d managed them for a season on Football Manager. It’s not always down to geographical proximity to where I’m working.
Last Saturday is a case in point. I’ve been desperate to go to see Forest Green Rovers for a while now – as for why, I’ll explain in a minute – and a gig in Cardiff in the evening was just about reason enough to take a massive detour to The New Lawn on my way to work.
But why Forest Green? There’s a load of reasons, most of which were kicked off towards the end of last season when I witnessed them beating Chester up at the Deva Stadium on a sunny bank holiday Monday.
1: The tales of Rovers being an environmentally friendly club are well documented, and one Chester fan found the prospect of trying to save the Earth incredibly offensive. He repeatedly called their players “tree huggers” as if he went home and operated a Victorian smokestack every night out of principle. He would have called them murderers with less enthusiasm and bile. So obviously, I wanted to learn more. Any team that can anger an idiot that much is appealing to me.
2: They’ve got a great kit. Like, really awesome. I remember being little and the first two teams who had kits that I really remembered were Dundee United (who played in the first game I ever watched on TV) and Anderlecht (who I saw in a magazine). Tangerine and vivid purple looked pretty cool, and kicked off my long love of slightly weird-hued shirts. Rovers play in green and black hoops, but it’s a very special green. It’s the brightest green in the world, like a cross between a highlighter pen and the aliens on The Simpsons.
3: They’re based in a village. In fact, a place smaller than a village (Wikipedia calls it a “hamlet”, which if I remember correctly is a place with less than 1000 inhabitants) which luckily happens to be called Forest Green. The nearest place with a decent amount of people in is the town of Nailsworth, with a population of 6600 people. This is why I remember Rushden and Diamonds so fondly, and why I am so desperate to visit Hoffenheim in Germany. Being from a huge city is SO last season.
4: The whole stadium is vegan. I keep trying to convince my wife that we could be vegan for the undoubted health benefits, but she likes to remind me that we both really like meat and are incredibly weak when it comes to bacon. In all seriousness, I am aware of the health and environmental reasons of giving up all meat and dairy products and I’d like to give it a shot in the future. It’ll be tricky, but I gave up booze and worse back in the day, maybe I can do the same with some other stuff in the future. I’ll be honest, I was curious to see how fans reacted to this within the ground on a match day. Do people get enraged looking for a hot dog?
I was joined on my trip to Chester last season by my mate Darren – formerly known as wrestler Mad Man Manson – and his wife Sammy. Darren also came to Berlin with me this season, and has since gone back there to watch Hertha again, in a snow-ravaged game that I jealously watched on television. He’s a bloody good egg and loves his football. Sammy isn’t into it so much but is smashing company and indulges us just being nerds.
We would meet up before the game, with Darren and Sammy living much closer to rural Gloucestershire than I did. For me it would be a three hour drive down the M54, M6 and M5, but knowing that Forest Green were top of the Conference and going well meant that we could well expect a half decent game to reward us for our travels. Opponents Macclesfield have been in the Conference now since 2012, having previously had a 15 year stint in the league. I can remember them getting promoted, reading about their rise in the pages of 90 Minutes magazine; first in 1995 when they won the Conference but weren’t allowed to go up because their stadium wasn’t up to scratch. They were finally promoted in 1997, around the time that 90 Minutes actually folded and I had to find something else to read every week.
My drive down was pretty uneventful, apart from driving past a sign for Cirencester and having a memory come flooding back to me. A few years back, I did a gig at the Royal Agricultural College there. It was me, doing half an hour of comedy; and legendary cabaret performer Mister Methane, a man who can fart on command and do all kinds of wacky stuff that you would imagine relates to having such a skill.
The crowd were typical agriculture students: As in they were all rich kids and nearly everyone was wearing at least one gilet. Towards the front of the stage they were pretty decent, laughing at a lot of stuff and playing along nicely. But one lad wandered forwards and repeatedly screamed the word “wanker” at me. At one point he got quite close, so I pulled him towards me and told him, firmly, to get away from the stage or we would have a problem. He traipsed towards the back of the room.
I carried on, but then had one of those weird slow-motion moments where time stood almost still because I was aware of something that was about to hit me. A pint glass (and an actual glass one, not plastic) hit me in the shoulder. It had been lobbed by my mate from earlier, who stood at the back loudly proclaiming it was him. For the first time in my career, I walked off stage before my time was up, and had a bit of a pop at the poor students who had organised the gig. It wasn’t their fault of course, but there was no security and the lad who chucked the glass was still in the room, with nobody deciding to chuck him out.
I calmed down a bit, watched Mister Methane and got paid. Then as I was leaving (and I weirdly remember that I was driving a Mini Cooper S that my Dad had as a courtesy car, but with no need for it), the lad who threw the glass was outside. I remember thinking “well, if he apologises now I’ll let it go.” He saw me, stood up and said in one of the poshest voices that I’ve ever heard that “for a comedian, you’ve got no sense of fucking humour”. I remember thinking he was rubbish at swearing, doing what all rich people do and adding a twee cockney twang to his cursing that made him sound like even more of a tool.
I don’t remember throwing the punch at him, but his friends told me that he deserved it. He said his piece to me, I may well have told him to go away (in slightly more ribald terms) and he squared up to me. So I punched him in the face, apparently. The red mist descended so quickly that I only remember sitting on a wall next to his friends and thinking about how much my fist hurt. He was fine, if dazed (I’m still mildly impressed little me could take a burly rugby playing farmer down with one punch, but he was very drunk) and he then chose to apologise to me, bowing to my boxing skills. I drove home terrified that I’d never work for that promoter again, so I fired off a text apologising for what I’d done, both the fighting and walking off stage.
The next day I was sat watching Leicester with my Dad (this was back before I had a gig every Saturday) and the promoter rang me. You can tell I was worried, because this is the first and last time I have ever taken a phone call during a football match. He apologised, offered to have the shirt I was wearing dry-cleaned (I never bothered with that) and said he’d never run the gig there again. He was good to his word, he never did.
I tell you what, you’ll struggle to find prettier surroundings on your way to many stadiums in the top five divisions in England. Once you get near Nailsworth it’s all forests and hills and old stone buildings. It’s a little bit like you’re playing Skyrim and they just put an A-road through it. Darren messaged to say he’d been delayed, so I slowed down a little. Mindful that I would get no meat products at the game (and yes, that includes Bovril) I panicked and realised I needed to get some kind of beefy taste hit. So I sat for a good few minutes in a petrol station eating a bag of beef McCoys and questioning the decisions I make in life.
There’s not much parking at The New Lawn. I don’t know if this is a consequence of the teams recent good form, or because you can’t really get to the ground without driving there, or just because they’re so green that they don’t want you to drive there. I don’t think, however, that public transport is that widely available, unless you count hijacking a cow and riding it side-saddle through Gloucestershire to the ground. The main car park was full, so I stuck my car in a nearby school for £4.
I wonder how many different businesses I’ve parked in over the years. For ages at Leicester me and my Dad would park in a disused factory where presumably the only income they made was on a match day. I’ve since parked in countless schools, community centres, dodgy pubs (that’s the norm in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester) and factories. One of my favourites is in Luton, where you can park out the back of an electrical store that still sells BBC Micros.
From the school I parked in, I thought I was looking at another school until I realised that it was The New Lawn. The trouble with new structures at Conference level is that they don’t tend to be the most imposing or interesting, but of course the story behind this place is less to do with aesthetics and more to do with how it’s powered and looked after.
For example, much of the power required by the stadium is provided by solar energy, the pitch is organic (and prize winning) and mowing is done by a solar-powered robot. Really. That last bit is 100% true. I hope that there’s a picture of the mower on the wall of the clubhouse alongside all of the other staff. Or that there is a robot tea lady and steam-powered kit-man.
After the short walk up to the ground I queued for a couple of minutes at the small, efficient ticket office. I decided to stand (as I usually prefer to do) behind the goal with the home fans. Three sides of the ground are terraced. Both ends – one for home, the other for away fans – plus one whole side (which is sparsely populated and uncovered), then the rather snazzy main stand has a load of seats in. For this match, that stand was pretty full.
Once inside, I obviously had to get food. Normally I would get a burger or a hot dog, but that wouldn’t be happening here. As you’re queuing up, there are even signs explaining why they don’t sell meat or dairy products in the stadium. I have to say, having given it a read it makes some very good points. And it wasn’t like there was loads less choice than most other teams: You could have a veggie burger, a quorn pie or chips with various things over them. I went with the veggie burger… and it was amazing. Seriously. Genuinely wonderful. It even had salad on it! That did mean that I had to pick gherkins out of it, but it was easily the best burger I’ve eaten in the UK, even if there was no meat in it.
I ate some vegan chocolate too, made with rice milk. That was pretty snazzy as well, although I’m a fan of non-dairy milks: I make protein smoothies with almond milk and I really like horchata (made with rice milk) from my favourite Mexican restaurant in London.
Wow. I just re-read that last bit and I sound like the worst hipster in the world. I am so, so sorry.
Having taken my place on the terrace, I was joined my Darren and Sammy just as the game kicked off. One of the last songs that they played over the PA before kick-off was – and I swear I am not making this up – “Bohemian Like You” by The Dandy Warhols, featuring the line:
So if you dig on vegan food / come over to my work / I’ll have them cook you something that you’ll really love
The game was affected by the conditions. It might have been sunny, but the wind was swirling around and the pitch had taken a lot of rain in recent weeks. It was cutting up a little after the warm-up, so neither side was going to be able to play the most free-flowing football. Rovers were shooting towards our end and had a talented bunch of players though, with Elliott Frear full of tricks, Charlie Clough a mountain at the back and the wonderfully named Keanu Marsh-Brown up front. Just think: We are just waiting for an explosion of Keanus onto the footballing world. Hollywood has a lot to answer for.
The first half was punctuated with the odd chance, but nothing too brilliant. The best moment came when the tannoy announcer asked if there was a driver of a black BMW X5 who needed to return to his vehicle. Why? He’d left it running. Of all the places to do that… and of all the vehicles. Nobody likes a BMW driver. They’re alongside Audi and Volvo drivers as the most tedious on the motorway.
We went into half time all square and with neither team really on top. Darren bought some chips and we kicked back off, noting that there is something about the environmental nature of the ground that means you won’t litter like you carelessly do at every other stadium. I still had my rubbish in my pockets. He didn’t think it would get to him.
It wasn’t until the 69th minute that there was a breakthrough, and it came from the away side. A back-pass to Rovers keeper Steve Arnold was woefully underhit, catching on the sluggish turf, and Macclesfield’s Jack Sampson stabbed the ball home. Even Sammy – admitting herself that she’s no football fan – knew that it was a terrible error on behalf of the Forest Green defence.
Luckily, eight minutes later Rovers were level and the home fans were in fine voice. Left back James Jennings got onto the end of a Frear free kick way up at the other end in front of the 80-something Macclesfield fans. It had been coming in a way, even if the conditions meant that clear-cut chances were few and far between.
I didn’t think that we would find a winner, but no fans decided to leave early as we went into injury time. And it’s a good job everyone stuck around as three minutes into injury time Clough prodded home from close range to send a small Gloucestershire hamlet into raptures. All of his team-mates piled on top of him like it was a school cup final, and once the game was re-started the final whistle blew.
As we left, Darren realised that he, like me, was carrying his litter out of the stadium. Somehow, subliminally, the club had made us care just a little bit more about our surroundings. Fair play to them.
I did have to stop on my way to Cardiff to eat some meat though. I’m a monster.
Forest Green Rovers 2 (Jennings 77, Clough 90) vs Macclesfield Town 1 (Sampson 69)
Cost: Ticket £15, Parking £4, Veggie Burger and Vegan Chocolate £4.20
Fun Factor: 7/10