Because it’s Saturday
FGR supporters will almost certainly enjoy this book in their Christmas stockings!!
The publishers say “Because it’s Saturday is a compelling portrait of life in the professional grass roots of football, far from the glitz and glamour of Premier League superstars. Why does anyone travel from Grimsby to Accrington on a wet Tuesday night in November to watch players battling on a muddy pitch with more gusto than grace? How do teams survive in half-empty stadia, and how does a Cotswolds village side owned by an ex-hippy challenge the likes of Luton for promotion? Award-winning writer Gavin Bell spoke to the owners, managers, players and supporters of eight lower-league sides, over the course of a season, to discover the fierce passions and loyalties that sustain clubs unlikely to win anything other than the devotion of their fans. Going beyond the fields of dreams, Bell explores the communities for whom these clubs are more than football teams. From gritty northern towns blighted by post-industrial decline, to ivory towers of academia and a seaside resort riven by a fans’ civil war – it’s a rollercoaster ride of a season”.
The chapter about Forest Green will doubtless entertain the Green Army (a number of Supporters Club members are mentioned) but fans will also find loads of interest in the 7 other teams featured in the book.
The publishers and the author have given us permission to publish an extract from the book which you’ll find below. It comes from the FGR chapter in the book. Gavin Bell, the author, was visiting The New Lawn in April 2018.
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Tonight I’ve arranged to meet Ian Crawley, chairman of the supporters’ club and retired town councillor, in a local pub to find out how his village team has progressed this far and is managing to compete with the likes of Luton and Notts County. It can’t be easy with average crowds of less than 3,000, but Rovers have come a long way since they were founded in 1889 by a non-conformist minister, Reverend E.J.H. Peach. In 1906-07 they had the distinction of finishing bottom of the Stroud & District League with zero points (although they had won one game they had two points deducted for fielding an ineligible player) and more recently they toiled for 19 seasons in the Conference (renamed National League in 2015-16) before winning promotion through play-offs at the third attempt. In a subsequent interview manager Mark Cooper suggested they had become victims of their success: ‘We’ve had a lot of animosity towards Forest Green. When I played for them they were a friendly little club, part time, and 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.’
The chairman, Dale Vince, is also chuffed and has big plans, including a new stadium designed by award winning architect Zaha Hadid with the aim of playing in the Championship within five years. The ‘little club on the hill’ is getting bigger, and striving for pastures new.
The Village Inn in Nailsworth is a cosy warren of rooms offering local ales and live TV football. It doesn’t serve food, but there is a chippie next door and patrons are welcome to bring in their fish and pie suppers to enjoy with a pint. This strikes me as an excellent symbiotic relationship, and a perfect place to begin my Rovers research.
Ian Crawley came late to Forest Green. Born near White Hart Lane, he was a season ticket holder at Spurs until a career move took him to Bristol and a home in Nailsworth.
‘I didn’t know Forest Green Rovers existed,’ he admits. ‘Years before Tottenham I used to go to local non-league. I was always fascinated by clubs like Bishop Auckland that appeared at Wembley out of nowhere, so I was delighted when I discovered there was quite a good Conference team in the village where I’d bought a house.’
Ian was soon seduced by the easy-going friendliness of his new club. ‘The great thing about the game at this level is that the players come into the club lounge after the game and stay for a drink and a chat. So you get to know them and feel for them in a different way.
‘It’s not about winning or losing any more. The attraction is the honesty of the footballers on the pitch. You know they’re not paid massive salaries and they’re often condemned as journeymen footballers, but it’s fascinating to watch quality players at the fag end of their careers and talented lads on their way up. The older guys may have lost their pace, but they still have that innate quality, it’s a joy to see.’
Ian cites examples in Isaiah Osborne, a midfielder who played with Aston Villa in the Premier League, and Ethan Pinnock, a young centre-half who has just signed for Barnsley. ‘Everyone said Osborne had a fantastic future when he was at Villa, but he lost his way and we got him on a free and he’s brilliant. He’s got time on the ball, left foot, right foot, he’s kept us in the league. We got Ethan from Dulwich and he’s the most perfect footballer I’ve ever seen. He’s perfectly balanced and whatever he does with his left foot he can do with his right, and he’s brilliant in the air. Straight away you knew he was going to play in the Premier League and that we had him at best for one season. But when you love football it’s a joy to watch lads at the beginning of their careers improving in the time they’re with you.’
Recruiting a blend of youth and experience is one thing, but as any manager knows forging them into a successful team is the hard part. ‘I’ve always thought football manager must be the most difficult job in the world. With new players coming in every season you’ve got to have them in the right positions in the right team with the right tactics that work against a particular team on match day. It’s an absolutely impossible job, it’s far easier being prime minister of a country.’
Ian admits that stepping up to the EFL has been tougher than expected. ‘A lot of people gave us a false sense of security, saying there wasn’t a lot of difference between the top of the Conference and the bottom of League Two. Well maybe there wasn’t in the past, but there is now. We struggled because Mark likes small, two-footed quick ball players, particularly in midfield, and when we started in League Two we were just bullied off the pitch.’
The arrival of Osborne on a free, followed by three robust centre-halves in the January window strengthened the midfield, and a few decent results have kept their heads above the stormy waters of relegation.
‘A lot of players won’t come here because we’re not a city or even a town, we’re just a village really, so if top players choose to play for Rovers at this stage in their careers you appreciate that and thank them. At Tottenham I never wanted to lose our best players to someone else, but here if a young lad goes on to a big club you want to be pleased for him. It’s all part of being closer to the players than you’d ever be in the Premiership.’
Vince has not been slow to splash the cash in pursuit of success, paying out more than £70,000 on agents’ fees in 2017, one of the most in League Two. By contrast Accrington paid less than £10,000. (The top spenders were Coventry City at £113,620).
Yet Ian concedes not everyone is happy about Vince’s patronage. ‘There are some fans in the town who don’t want any more to do with the club because they feel it’s become a rich man’s plaything. Admittedly the chairman has been using the club to promote green values and his renewable energy business, but that’s fine with me because personally I believe in them, and the new support we’ve gained is a hundred times what we’ve lost. I think it’s exceptional in any walk of life when you have someone who is really idealistic and wears their values on their sleeve, and there’s not many people you can say that about.’