The newest members of The 92, Forest Green Rovers gained plenty of attention even before League Two football came to this hilltop retreat in rural Gloucestershire.
The play-off win over Tranmere at Wembley in May 2017 may have ended two decades in the fifth flight for the club from Nailsworth, south of Stroud, but the real story started when eco millionaire Dale Vince arrived in 2010.
Founder of Stroud-based green-energy company ecotricity, the former New Age traveller not only brought to the New Lawn vegan food and solar power but also the kinds of salaries previously out of reach here. Ex-Chelsea UEFA Youth League goalkeeper Bradley Collins, former Ivory Coast under-20 international midfielder Drissa Traore and one-time England C winger Keanu Marsh-Brown play under manager Mark Cooper, son of Leeds and England legend Terry.
Forest Green were one of the nearly 20 clubs Cooper junior ran out for as a midfielder, back in the days of the three-figure crowds at the Lawn Ground. The predecessor to today’s New Lawn, this basic field wasn’t equipped with a stand until 1996, still with its signature watermill behind it.
The football team of the hilltop hamlet of Forest Green had been formed in 1889, by the Reverend EJH Peach. The one constant in an early history of name changes and football in the Gloucestershire regional to Stroud district leagues was, in fact, the Lawn Ground. Going up the hill for the match became ingrained in the rural fabric.
Integrating Nailsworth into the fold, and occasionally Stroud, the club stepped up a gear and expanded its horizons under Peter Goring, manager at the Lawn Ground through the 1970s. An FA Cup winner and First Division champion with Arsenal as a player 20 years before, Goring led Forest Green into the Hellenic League, whose clubs came from far away as Greater London and Northamptonshire.
A more worldly-wise Forest Green won through to the FA Vase final at Wembley in 1982, beating Rainworth Miners Welfare. A decade later, well travelled Geordie Frank Gregan took Rovers up to the fifth-flight Conference and another major final at Wembley, defeat in the FA Trophy to Kingstonian.
Shortly afterwards, current manager Mark Cooper became club captain at Forest Green, under Nigel Spink, the goalkeeping hero of Aston Villa’s 1982 European Cup Final triumph. In only a short managerial career, Spink took Forest Green to his old stomping ground of Villa Park for another FA Trophy final, and another defeat, in 2001 to Canvey Island.
While Rovers clung on in the Conference, the club sold the Lawn Ground for real estate and built the New Lawn nearby. Crowds still hovered around the 1,000 mark, except during two runs in the FA Cup. Nearly 5,000 gathered for the visit of Derby County in the Third Round of 2008, a ding-dong tie that finished with a 4-3 win for the Midlands side after Forest Green went 2-0, then 3-2, up. An away game at the same stage a year later attracted a 4,000-plus gate at Notts County.
Despite the extra income, the club struggled. Saved from relegation on a technicality in 2010, Forest Green welcomed the arrival of eco magnate Dale Vince.
Changing black-and-white striped shirts for lime ones, Vince set about his green revolution at the New Lawn without making too many waves on the playing side. Keeping faith with Dave Hockaday as manager, he saw Rovers mired in mid-table until bringing in former Gillingham centre-back Adrian Pennock in 2013.
Taking Rovers to the Conference play-offs in his first full season, Pennock then achieved long strings of consecutive wins in 2015-16 before being dismissed shortly before the play-off semi-final with Dover. Caretaker coach Scott Bartlett steadied the ship, with Mark Cooper brought in on the eve of the Wembley play-off final with Grimsby.
Both were on the bench to witness a superb Marsh-Brown strike half Grimsby’s lead, but it wasn’t enough.
Motivating his men to achieve play-off qualification again in 2017, Cooper could prepare for Wembley after another vital Marsh-Brown goal sent Forest Green into the final. A brace from on-loan winger Kaiyne Woolery set up a famous victory over Tranmere, Dale Vince celebrating with Cooper and the players as the enormity of their achievement sank in.
Whatever happens in League Two – and few teams will relish a trek to the top of the hill – Vince has other plans for the club. Unveiled in November 2016 were plans for a new stadium made almost entirely out of wood. To be sited near the M5 motorway near Stonehouse, the Eco Park would move Forest Green from Nailsworth after 130 years of hilltop football.
All-standing apart from its main East Stand, the New Lawn is a neat, compact ground of around 5,000 capacity. Famously partly powered by solar energy – you’ll see the panels by the main entrance as you come in – the ground will probably see few major improvements while the club get to work on a new stadium outside Stonehouse.
For the time being, supporters will still make their way to the top of the hill. Away supporters are allocated the uncovered sideline terrace facing the main stand, as well as two seated sectors opposite, nearest the North Stand and main entrance.
From outside Vue Cinemas by Merrywalks shopping and leisure centre in Stroud, Stagecoach bus No.63 leaves twice an hour for Nailsworth, to terminate at Forest Green Primary School near the main entrance of the New Lawn. Services run until just after 7pm. Journey time is about 25min. Most buses set off from and run all the way to Gloucester 70min away.
In Nailsworth, the bus sets down at the Old Market close to the Village Inn pub, before climbing up Spring Hill, leading to equally steep Nympsfield Road. Walking to the ground from here would be a brave move.
Advance tickets can be purchased in person from the main reception (Mon-Fri 9am-3pm) behind the East Stand or online.
There are also phone sales on 01453 834 860. Note that away fans can buy online from the Forest Green website.
On match days, ticket windows operate just inside the main entrance.
Prices are £16 to stand, £19-£21 to sit in the East Stand. Match-day admission is £2 extra. Over-65s pay £12-£17, plus £2 on the day, 16-21s £8-£12, plus £1 on the day, 11-16s £5-£8, plus £1 on the day. Under-11s go in free, except for the best seats in the East Stand, charged at £3-£4.
During the week, you can buy Forest Green souvenirs from the main reception (Mon-Fri 9am-3pm) behind the East Stand.
On match days, a pop-up shop offers standard merchandise, replica shirts in lime and black, away tops in black-and-white hoops, scarves and badges.
The only bar in the vicinity is the one behind the East Stand, the Green Man, open match days only. Local Gloucestershire ales and Carlsberg lager are supped in a large space embellished by an enlarged photocopy of the Stroud Journal from 1889, providing news of the formation of a football team in Forest Green.
In the Conference/National days, away fans were welcome for pre-match drinks here. This policy may well change for the League Two season of 2017-18.
Visiting supporters may be best drinking in Nailsworth then hopping on the No.63 bus from the Old Market for the stadium.
Naturally, snacks around the ground are meat-free, including the famous Q-Pie with quorn. Despite near general disapproval from carnivorous visiting supporters on principle, the curry and chips option always goes down well.