They may be known as the ‘little club on the hill’, but Forest Green Rovers have reached new heights by winning promotion to the English Football League for the first time.
The Nailsworth-based club, who once played in the Stroud League, beat Tranmere 3-1 at Wembley and next season fans from Coventry City, Swindon Town and Port Vale will be weaving through the Gloucestershire countryside to reach their New Lawn home.
Forest Green’s road to promotion has been a long one – this was their 19th consecutive season in the National League.
But when they reached the fifth tier in 1998, the odds against them progressing to the EFL were steeper than the Nympsfield Road that leads up the hill to their ground.
“It is an unbelievable achievement to put a village team in the Football League,” manager Mark Cooper told BBC Sport.
“People talk about us having a lack of fans but you’ve got to remember we’re on the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. They were brilliant [at Wembley].”
Former Swindon and Notts County boss Cooper has forged a strong working relationship with chairman Dale Vince, but it is the latter’s unique business strategies that have attracted plenty of attention.
Even the address of Forest Green’s stadium hints at alternative thinking: The New Lawn, Another Way, Nailsworth, GL6 0FG.
Whether it be the vegan diet for the players, the barring of any red meat being served in their ground on match days, the cow manure used to help fertilise the pitch or the solar-powered lawnmower cutting it, this is a club breaking from convention.
“It’s always good to be different,” Cooper added. “The chairman is certainly different, his ethos and what he believes in.
“There’s no right way or wrong way, but we’ve had success doing it, so he’s been vindicated in what he’s done.
“We’ve had a lot of animosity towards Forest Green. When I played for them, they were a friendly little club, part-time. Everyone loved them because they weren’t a threat. Once they became a threat, nobody liked them, so I’m just chuffed for the chairman.
“He gave me the opportunity to have full control over the football side, and I’ve never had that. That was what enticed me to come here.”
Chairman aiming higher
Vince, the owner of electricity company Ecotricity, has ambitious plans for the club to one day compete as high as the Championship, and on Sunday he was quick to continue looking up the football pyramid.
Highlighting the additional promotion places available at the top of League Two, compared to the National League, Vince declared that getting into League One “will be easy” for the Green Army.
But what can EFL sides expect from the Gloucestershire outfit on the pitch next season?
“We’ve got some great games, Newport, Swindon, some big crowds, Coventry, so it will be fun getting them up that hill, that’s for certain,” said Cooper.
“We’re not going to go in there to make the numbers up. Knowing what the chairman’s like, he will want to be a threat in that league.
“This National League is the hardest league to get out of, one trillion per cent, because with so many big teams in there, it’s a graveyard.
“Next year we might not be the favourites every week, but a bit of pressure comes off us.”
‘We have a competitive budget’
With a population of 5,794, Nailsworth will be the smallest place to ever have an EFL club. So how did they do it?
Having solid financial backing has undoubtedly helped, but Cooper is adamant it’s been about more than that.
“When you’re on the outside, you think everybody [here] is earning 10 grand a week,” he continued. “When you get on the inside, you realise that is not strictly true.
“We have to pay sometimes to attract players because of where we are, but we have a competitive budget. But that doesn’t guarantee you anything.
“We try to play football the way we believe it should be played. Our fans know that we’ve got a little bit of an identity in how we play football. Lincoln are long ball. We’re a football team.”
Vince told BBC Radio Gloucestershire: “Our budget is nowhere near as big as people say it is.
“People just get carried away but that’s football. Nobody at the club really cares about that.”
Doidge ‘shuts up’ the doubters
Even the richest clubs in the world can only go so far without a reliable goalscorer, and Forest Green certainly had one of those this season in the shape of former Dagenham and Redbridge frontman Christian Doidge.
His 27th goal of the campaign put Forest Green 2-1 up at Wembley this season, as he found the back of the net with a typically crisp finish.
“He is an unbelievable professional. If you had 11 or 12 of him in your squad, you wouldn’t go far wrong,” Cooper said.
“He’s just desperate to be a footballer, works hard every day. And he’s getting better and better. Someone said at the start of the season ‘he’ll never score 20 goals’ – he’s definitely shut them up.”
New eco-stadium planned
So what of the future? Other so-called ‘smaller clubs’ have climbed through the divisions in recent years, including now-Championship outfit Burton Albion and League One play-off semi-finalists Fleetwood Town.
“The chairman is going to build a new stadium,” Cooper, Forest Green’s top scorer in 2001-02, continued, referring to Vince’s plans for a new eco park and wooden stadium.
“That is 100% certain that will happen, knowing him. Right on the M5, it will be state-of-the-art, an unbelievable facility.
“As we grow, we will gradually attract more supporters and become even more sustainable.”
Forest Green may be small – but having reached the EFL, they fully intend to take root.