6 May ~ If you did a survey of why people go and watch their local team play, tucking into a burger or hot dog would be right up there with having a pint and actually watching the football. But not at Conference club Forest Green Rovers, who earlier this season decided to stop selling red meat products at their ground after imposing a similar ban on their players.
Dale Vince, who became the club's chairman last November, is a vegan and claims that the move was designed both to improve the health of fans and make the club more "eco-friendly". "Primarily it was about changing how the club works and attracting a different audience to football, "Vince says. "The food we're providing costs more but we're keeping our prices the same. We're not interested in money. We tried to keep it quiet but a fan who didn't agree leaked it to the press."
This unusual step has received a mixed reception around the ground, a fact acknowledged by manager Dave Hockaday. But the manager supports the move and was fully consulted, along with the catering manager, by Vince. Views among the Forest Green locals were decidedly mixed. "People come to the game to watch the football not to get fat," said one fan. According to Bob Hunt, who commentates on Forest Green games for BBC Radio Gloucestershire, some supporters are disappointed that they weren't consulted and they feel like they're being dictated to.
But results on the pitch improved after the players were banned from eating cottage pie or meat lasagne on matchdays. Forest Green looked certainties for relegation this season after being reprieved by Salisbury City entering administration last time out but they gave themselves a fighting chance with their performances over the past few months. They lost seven of the 18 games since red meat got the chop, although they only escaped by one goal on the last day of the season courtesy of a late Kettering winner which relegated Southport on goal difference.
Vince wants the football authorities to introduce similar plans at grounds across the country. "There's a moral dimension. I can't be part of something I don't believe in but it's not a publicity stunt. Really, all we did was take some of the most horrible beef burgers and sausages off the menu and gave people a choice."
Forest Green are the longest-serving Conference club - next season will their 14th at the highest level of non-League football - although the town they're based in, Nailsworth, has a population of just 6,600. But whatever Vince pulls out of the hat next - he's talking about reusing rainwater which falls on the pitch and bringing in the country's first organic pitch - the supporters will probably back it as long as the team is able to overachieve by staying up. Robin Cottle