Checking out the world’s first vegan football club

Emma Dance finds out more about the Nailsworth football club that’s giving animal products the old heave-ho

Let’s face it, football grounds are not best known for the high standards of their catering. (Except, maybe, if you’re in a swanky sponsors box at Old Trafford or something.) More usually, they’re associated with over-priced greasy burgers, disappointing pies, and that old beef-stock favourite – Bovril. Not exactly the stuff of gastronomic dreams.

But Forest Green Rovers – a club based in Nailsworth, which last year was promoted to the Football League for the first time in its 128-year history – is bucking the trend. In fact (dare we say it?), it may even be better known for its food than its football. Why? Because this is the first and only football club in the world to go completely vegan. In fact, it’s just celebrated its second veganniversary.

The man behind the decision to take all animal products off the menu, for both players and fans, is the club chairman, a former hippy-turned green-energy tycoon. Meet the founder of Ecotricity, Dale Vince.

“It was on the cards since we took responsibility for the club back in 2010,” Dale says, as we sit in the club’s boardroom, overlooking the perfectly manicured organic pitch. “But it was a gradual thing – we didn’t do it all at once.

“It started when I saw the players eating lasagne before a match. Red meat is notoriously hard to digest, so I decided that we would stop feeding them lasagne specifically – and then stop serving red meat altogether. That was the beginning of the path, and over the course of two or three seasons we stopped serving any meat, then fish, and then we removed animal products entirely.

“Milk was really the final frontier for us. It was the last challenge for our fans, not being able to have cow’s milk in their tea or coffee, but we tried different kinds of milk and asked them what they thought. Oat milk emerged as the favourite, so that’s what we serve. The whole process took us a bit longer than it might have done, though, because there were all kinds of ridiculous stories in the media about our ‘red meat ban.’ It’s not that at all. Players can do what they want at home, and fans can bring their own food in if they really want to.”

It doesn’t seem that many do want to, though, and since 2010 food sales at the club have quadrupled. A firm favourite is the Q-Pie – a pie filled with Quorn and topped with crispy leeks – and, of course, there’s an ace gravy to pour over it. So good is the Q-Pie, in fact, that it came in the top three at the 2017 British Pie Awards. (Probably not what you’d expect from football ground grub, right?) There’s a changing special at every home game too – imagine dishes like sweet and sour tofu balls – so it’s pretty easy to see why the food’s proved such a hit with fans and players alike.

In charge of the kitchen, and keeping the menu fresh and exciting for both players and fans, is chef Em Franklin.

“I’d cooked a lot of vegan food before, but never only vegan food,” she tells me. “It’s really exciting to embrace a plant-based diet. I have a lot of freedom – my only real directive is to cook healthy vegan food and make it enjoyable for everyone who comes in. It’s actually a really lovely way to cook. We always focus on what is in the dish, not what isn’t. So we would never say something like ‘meat-free lasagne’, for example; instead we’d say ‘black bean lasagne’. And, of course, we always cook seasonally, because that’s when there’s the most goodness in the ingredients.

“The biggest challenge I have is just the volume! At the next match we’ll be cooking around 200 pies, plus the other dishes, and – of course – we have to feed the players, too. And we have cake at half time, so there will be 400 portions of that as well! We’ve had to get new, bigger ovens to cope with all the pies, but it’s great to see so many people wanting them.”

Of course, there were those who objected when Dale first announced that meat would be off the menu.

“The naysayers said it would kill the club, but it’s actually done quite the opposite,” says Dale. “I meet so many fans who say they love the food, and many of them have since turned vegan or vegetarian because of it. There are even some people who come here primarily for the food, and only second for the football. And that’s fine – as long as they’re coming here!”

Winning over the fans is one thing, though, but what about the players? After all, protein (very often chicken) is regularly touted as the must-have fuel for athletes.

“People get so hung up on protein, and that’s why they eat meat,” says Dale. “But we’re organic organisms, and we recognise natural produce. All of the nutrients we need can be got from plants. We feed plants to animals, so we can get the nutrients from eating those animals – but we get bad things from eating animals, too. It makes much more sense just to eat the plants directly.

“And, actually, chicken has become much less healthy than it was. There’s something like 25% less protein in chicken than there used to be, at least partly because of intensive agriculture.

“The players are primarily interested in performance, and that’s how we approached it with them – and they were receptive to the message. Last season we got to Wembley, and we didn’t have a single soft tissue injury all season. That’s pretty much unheard of in football, and I think it can be largely attributed to the vegan diet.

“There are lots of sports people who are going vegetarian and vegan because they think it helps their performance, and because it benefits soft tissue. Lewis Hamilton is one that’s recently said he’s going vegan – it all adds to the credibility. It’s interesting how food grabs the attention of the media. Being the world’s only vegan football club, we’ve reached a billion people through all forms of media and our message has been carried around the world.”

And Dale’s keen to stress that the message is far from being solely about following a plant-based diet. In fact, that’s just part of a much bigger mission to get people thinking more about sustainability, carbon footprints and other ‘green issues.’ There’s no doubt that they have some pretty impressive green credentials at New Lawn stadium – there are electric vehicle charging points in the car park, the pitch is chemical free (the groundskeeper does the weeding by hand) and there’s a solar-powered lawn mower known affectionately as the Mowbot, which cuts the grass. More than 90% of the club’s waste is recycled, too. In fact, the club has such a reputation as a green pioneer  that Dale’s just been to the UN to talk about the role of sustainability in sport, sharing his expertise with huge sports teams from around the world. (We’re talking the likes of the San Francisco 49ers).

“The club is a campaigning piece of work,” says Dale. “So it’s great to have other sports interested in what we do. We are driven by outcome and quality – not cost. It’s about taking our chance to influence people; we just try to show people what works and what’s good, not preach or instruct. We put the information in front of them and, when they pick it up and run with it, it’s a great feeling.”