I tried. I really did. The vegan thing was always going to be a bit of a theme for the Forest Green Rovers match, but I was determined not to slip into making the same tired old jokes. I hoped it would be a minor distraction, that Saturday would be just a normal football away day. Instead, it turned into a full-on trip through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia.
Early indications that we were entering the ‘right-on’ zone came when a local Argyle fan on the Park & Ride bus told us that, walking past a house in nearby Stroud, he heard a mother calling out to her child in the garden: “Fabian, come inside and finish your pita bread!”. We’re definitely not in Plymouth now, Toto.
Then things got weirder. Moments after arriving at the ground, we were accosted by a lady from the Nailsworth Climate Action Network (the feared NCAN ‘firm’) demanding to know what I was doing to reduce my carbon footprint. I momentarily considered telling her that while I do care about climate change, right then I was more preoccupied with whether Argyle could score against League Two’s most parsimonious defence. Recognising that a sense of humour was probably not a prerequisite for NCAN membership, I made my escape clutching a Carbon Pledge leaflet (“Upgrade your A-rated fridge-freezer to top-rated A+++ or better” it advised, helpfully).
Only to run into two alarmingly bearded hipster types under a gazebo selling ‘Aftershave Fragrances and Grooming for Men’. Another first at a football ground for me. Resisting the temptation to suggest that they relocate to Fratton Park – nobody is more in need of some intensive male grooming than that Pompey bloke with the bell – I side-stepped the vegan samosa cart and headed for the turnstiles.
“Can we get food inside the ground,” I asked a steward. “Yeah, mate,” he quipped. “If you can call it ‘food’”. Blimey, the first bad vegan food joke of the day came from the club’s own staff. Disappointed that we weren’t given the once-over for meat-based products by the world’s fattest sniffer dogs (‘Hey, it would be criminal to waste all those confiscated pasties’) we went through the turnstiles into the Twilight Zone.
Where we discovered that there was indeed food available, but being served from a single window, ensuring a 25-minute wait for the 1,200 visiting supporters. Perhaps this was cunningly designed to teach us the value of patience, to instill a Zen-like meditative state. But since I’d just driven 200 miles, was very hungry and had spotted that they were selling what looked like regular chips, my focus was entirely on getting my teeth into some serious carbs.
There was still no escape from the carnivore re-education programme while we queued though, thanks to a giant sign next to the serving hatch informing us that Forest Green has ‘Given meat the red card’ and that non-vegans are probably going to die prematurely. Way to kill the vibe, dudes, as the chaps on the male grooming stand would probably have put it. I’m all for raising environmental awareness and would happily defend veganism as a legitimate lifestyle choice, but this was all getting a bit too preachy for me.
Fortunately at that point I became distracted by the wags on the Argyle Life group chat suggesting alternative vegan names for Argyle players. Gary Soya, Conor Plant anybody? Thank goodness for social media.
Then I saw it. On the end of an advertising hoarding above the stand, among all the Ecotricity and plant-based food promotions, was a board advertising ‘Fat Toni’s Pizzeria’. A quick Google search revealed that Fat Toni’s is very much not a vegan, or even vegetarian, establishment. Was this a subversive act of defiance? Just as opponents of totalitarian regimes spray-paint anti-government slogans on subway walls, had some FGR dissidents climbed over the fence in the dead of night and stuck the board up there without anybody noticing? I’d like to think so.
Really though, the whole atmosphere was just odd. Once the game got under way, the Rovers fans attempted to engage in the usual ‘banter’ with the visiting supporters nearest to them, but it looked like their heart wasn’t really in it. I could make a cheap (and doubtless scientifically inaccurate) jibe about them being too weak thanks to the lack of meat and dairy in their diet, but I wonder if it was more that they’d just been ground down by the relentless ‘right on-ness’ of their club.
However, it was my son’s comment that the FGR mascot, a bizarre green (inevitably), dragon-style creature, looked like he’d been designed as part of a task on The Apprentice that suddenly made sense of it all.
That was it! Picture the scene. The usual collection of oddball Apprentice candidates are assembled in front of Lord Sir Shuggs as he intones; “This week’s task is to come up with an idea for a new football club. You have to design the ground, the kit and the match day food.”
Cut to Team Amnesiac or whatever other stupid name they have concocted. That bloke who’s always there, you know, the Del Boy style hot-tub salesman from Basildon who Lord Sugar will say reminds him of his younger self before firing him in the semi-final, is getting over-excited as usual.
“This green, vegany thing is huge at the moment ‘innit? So what we do, right, is we call the club something to do with trees. Forests are green, ain’t they? That’ll do. We make the food out of tofu and wood shavings, flog all sorts of eco-mentalist gear outside the ground and bish, bash, bosh, sorted.”
“And we can buy a flat-pack stadium from IKEA, another candidate suggests. ”Just two hours and an allen key to assemble.”
“What about the players’ kit”, interjects the caricature posh boy who will be fired when the task inevitably crashes and burns. “Obviously it has to be green, but not just ordinary green. Look, I’ve found this shade that looks like radio-active toxic waste.”
“Brilliant”, cry the rest of the team. “Who wouldn’t want to buy replica kit so bright that it burns out the retinas of anyone who looks at it for more than a second?”
And that, my friends, is how the club came into being. An Apprentice task that was meant to be shut down when the programme finished, but somehow escaped into the wild and is now living in a middle class village in Gloucestershire.
Forest Green Rovers. As they might have said in Star Trek; “It’s football, Jim, but not as we know it.”