The wonder of Google Maps tells us that from my house it’s a three and a quarter hour, 280 kilometre drive to the Forest Green Rovers park and ride car park at Woodchester, but from my step-son’s house in the silvan suburbs of Basingstoke, the same destination is less than 125 kilometres away and can be reached in under 90 minutes. With these statistics in mind, I have adopted the excuse of ‘seeing the grandchildren’ in order to get free board and lodging and to break up the journey for what will be the first time I have driven to an away match since Town’s 5-2 win at Rotherham in 2015, back in the heady days of Brett Pitman, Jonathan Douglas and Kevin Bru.
Leaving the house at a civilised 11:30am, the journey down the M4, up the A419 to Cirencester and along the A46 to Woodchester is a breeze, and the good karma continues when the park and ride turns out to be free today because the organisers aren’t sufficiently organised, although as the very nice man at the gate tells me this isn’t good really because the takings would be donated to local schools. The white bus, reminding me of the 1967 film debut of Anthony Hopkins, is already waiting and after waiting a bit longer to fill up with a full load it lurches off along the valley into Nailsworth before turning right in the town centre and struggling up Spring Hill and Nympsfield Road to the New Lawn, the current home of Forest Green Rovers. “Not very environmental” says the Forest Green fan sat in front of me on the bus “Must use about four ‘undred quid’s worth of fuel getting up ‘ere”. Ironically, the all-white bus is operated by a company called Cotswold Green. What they need are trolleybuses.
Thanking the lady bus driver, who to my shame makes me think of Diane the community service supervisor in the BBC tv series The Outlaws, I alight from the bus with the other sixty-odd park and riders. The New Lawn is every inch a typical non-league ground sitting in a field at the side of the road and is mostly all the better for that. I visit the club shop, a portacabin, but the array of souvenir toot is sadly disappointing, although I do meet ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his son Elwood there; Phil has bought a shirt for his collection; it won’t fit him, but it had been reduced to a tenner. I take a wander and find the Town team bus, a lovely view over some fields, the dressing rooms, which remind me a bit of somewhere like Kirkley & Pakefield or Haverhill in the Eastern Counties League, and a bar called the Green Dragon. Feeling thirsty after my drive and my bus trip, I decide to go in. “Is it okay to go in?” I say not verbally, but with my eyebrows and general expression to the steward outside as I reach for the door. “Home or away?” he asks suspiciously. Thinking quickly, but not really having to because my seat today is with the home supporters, I feign my best insouciant Gloucestershire accent by rolling my ‘r’s and pursing my lips slightly over the ‘o’ and answer “err, home”.
Inside the Green Dragon, which despite the pub name has the charm and character of a works social club or village hall, I queue a good ten minutes for a pint of Stroud Brewery ‘Budding’ (£4.80), and very tasty and refreshing it is too, even if the price is exorbitant; presumably however it would cost even more if there wasn’t just one very pleasant lady serving the drinks and one operating the till. Beer consumed I decide to enter the stadium, I walk towards turnstile number four only to see the turnstile operator climbing over it; quickly assessing the situation I head for turnstile number three and show my ticket to a lady steward, who becomes the second woman to remind me of tv’s Diane of The Outlaws today. Diane 2 simply ushers me through an open gate into the stand. I like to think this is my reward for responsibly asking her where I can dispose of my environmentally friendly plastic beer mug; in the bins inside the stand, she tells me without hesitation.
Inside the ground there is a long queue for vegan food at the oddly named “Oh, it’s you again” food outlet; most people seem to favour chips with curry sauce, but there are a few quite tasty-looking Quorn pies in evidence too. If I hadn’t lost time enough from my life already by queuing for beer, I would have tried one. Instead, I find my seat (£23.00) and wait for kick-off, absorbing the rustic non-league ambience of this most bucolic and lovely of Football League grounds. The cars parked up on a meadow at the back make it look like there could be a country fair or festival going on. At the back of the covered terrace off to my left a man in a cage and wearing a flat cap bangs a drum.
The players soon enter the pitch from the dressing room block in the corner and a terrifying, green but otherwise indescribable club mascot marauds towards the stand making a young woman cower in fear. After an unannounced, mystery 15 second ‘minute’ silence and subsequent applause, the game begins with Forest Green Rovers, wearing lurid green shirts with black tiger stripes and lurid green shorts and socks, kicking off in the direction of Stroud, whilst Town model their traditional blue shirts and socks with white shorts, and kick towards nowhere in particular except the Forest Green goal and that drummer in the flat cap. Apart from the Town players I have no idea who anyone is because Forest Green Rovers do not print a programme or even a team sheet and have only a rudimentary scoreboard. I would expect them to e-mail club members and ticket holders an e-programme as St Etienne in France do, but they don’t, which to coin a phrase that seems popular amongst Town fans on-line, smacks of being ‘tin-pot’.
Town soon win a corner. “Come On You Blues” chant a good number of the Ipswichians on the open terrace on the far side of the ground beneath the meadow with the cars on it. Town’s Marcus Harness has a shot, which isn’t very good and so far his touches on the ball have been poor; between the away terrace and the stand at the Stroud end of the ground I notice an ice cream van parked up on the Nympsfield Road, which sports a huge cone on the front. A couple of blokes are watchng the game for free over the fence. Nine minutes pass and Forest Green have their first shot, which swerves wide and high of the Town goal. The bloke in the flat cap bangs his drum and those around him sing “Campiones”, because Forest Green Rovers are indeed the reigning fourth division champions, even if it is of England and not Spain or Argentina as their chant implies.
Twelve minutes gone and Marcus Harness attempts a half-volley which is on target, but frustratingly it’s execution can’t match the satisfying rhyming quality of his first name and surname. “It needs a goal” says the woman sitting next to me. “I’m not coming again if it’s nil-nil.” Five minutes on and Town win their second corner. “Hark now hear the Ipswich sing, the Norwich ran away” chant a good number of Ipswich fans channelling their strange love of Boney M Christmas hits. Marcus Harness tries his luck on the right-hand side of the pitch but unfortunately his touch is as uncertain as it was on the left. The woman in the seat next but one from me cheers Town’s corner and I tentatively ask if she might be a Town fan too; she is, in a manner of speaking; she is here because Ipswich is her home town and it turns out she and her brother went to the same schools in Ipswich as my sister and I did; she now lives round the corner from The New Lawn and has simply turned up to support her hometown team, as any person with a soul would.
Twenty minutes of the game have gone and Town captain Sam Morsy has a header well saved by whoever the Forest Green goalkeeper is. The woman next to me expresses her admiration for Morsy. “He’s fiery, that’s what you want” she says, before adding in a thoughtful manner redolent of Pam Ayres with her rolled r’s “In a controlled manner”. Soon afterwards Freddie Lapado turns and shoots to force a flying save from the home goalkeeper. From the corner Wes Burns misses the ball and then Lee Evans loses it, allowing the Rovers to break away down the right and the resultant cross is hoofed away by George Edmundson for Rovers’ first corner. It is a stark warning to Town that by dominating possession they can be vulnerable to such quick breaks which can happen almost by chance.
In crossing the ball in that breakaway the Rovers’ number twenty-two is injured and is replaced by number three, a player who the woman next to me had commented upon as he warmed up, due to what she referred to as his “1970’s shorts” which look shorter than those of the other players; she speculates as to whether he has tucked them up into his pants. Number three enters the field of play and very soon the woman next to me says “He’s annoying me with those shorts”, and she’s right, so much thigh does look a little ridiculous, a bit like Alan Partridge in his running shorts. I like that according to his shirt this player is called Bernard, I think it suits his 1970’s vibe. A third of the game is now forever lost in the mists of time, and Conor Chaplin shoots, but it’s an easy save for the Rovers’ goalkeeper. “Come on Rovers” chant the supporters to my left, the Town fans have fallen silent, sapped perhaps by standing out in the heat of the afternoon sun.
With less than ten minutes until half-time, Rovers almost score as a low cross from the right somehow only produces a goal-kick for Town when the defence looked breached. Typically however, a missed opportunity at one end sees a goal soon after at the other, and in the thirty-sixth minute a ‘rifled’ snap-shot from Marcus Harness hits the top left hand corner of net and Town lead. After a prolonged period of silence, the Town’s fans can now burst into song again and begin a musical conversation with the Rovers fan which has me thinking of the song ”Anything you can do (I can do better)” from Irving Berlin’s 1946 musical Annie Get Your Gun. “Sing when you’re winning you only sing when you’re winning” chant the observant Rovers’ fans. “1-0 to the Tractor Boys” reply the Town fans as if to prove the point. “We forgot, we forgot, we forgot that you were here” reply the Rovers’ fans although they are blatantly lying because it was only a minute ago they were chanting about Town fans only singing when they are winning. “Here for the Ipswich, you’re only here for the Ipswich” is the sneering response from the away support, which they then cap with the withering put down “No noise from the Vegan boys, no noise from the Vegan boys” to which the Vegan boys either can’t think of anything to sing in response or they no longer care, and would rather eat some more chips with curry sauce.
Town end the half as much the better team as first another slightly weak Marcus Harness shot is saved by the mystery goalkeeper and then in the four minutes of time added on, a move down the left ends with Sam Morsy placing a perfect arc of a shot into the top right-hand corner of the Rovers’ goal for a 2-0 half-time lead.
Half-time passes talking to the women beside me, discovering that sitting behind the woman originally from Ipswich are two old boys who are also Town supporters and listening to an eclectic and enjoyable mix of music over the PA system including John Barry’s theme from Goldfinger sung by Shirley Bassey and David Bowie’s Starman, songs that somehow seem appropriate at a club where the owner is a New Age traveller turned eco-energy entrepreneur. It makes supporting a club owned by an American pension fund seem very dull indeed, regardless of the cash that has been splashed.
At seven minutes past four the game resumes, this time with Town getting first go with the ball, although it is Rovers who look most effective early on and they soon earn a corner. “Rovers (clap, clap, clap,) Rovers,(clap, clap, clap)” is the steady, traditional sound emanating from the locals and even some in the ‘posh’ twenty-three quid seats around me join in . The corner comes to nothing and soon Freddie Ladapo is teed up to hit a shot very high and very wide; then Town win a corner and then another courtesy of the energetic Conor Chaplin who looks like he’s enjoying himself. The Town support is waning however and the chants of “Come On You Blues” before the corner are rather feeble, as if all that lunch time drinking outside in the sun is now taking its toll. On the hour there is a drinks break for the players before Forest Green make a double substitution, and the effects of the Lucozade and fresh legs are almost immediate as on 64 minutes the Rovers’ number 28 knocks the ball into the Ipswich goal from close range in the sort of goal mouth melee which Ipswich are generally incapable of even creating let alone scoring from.
This is the home team’s moment, and for a good five minutes they effortlessly drift past the Town defenders who look as if they have been dazzled by the glare from a judiciously angled solar panel. The 68th minute sees Rovers put the ball in the Town net again via a towering head from a corner, but the lurid day-glo green shirts make it easy for the assistant referee to spot that a couple of the Rovers players were offside.
Town need to shore up their defence and Greg Leigh replaces the crocked Lief Davis, but still Christian Walton is forced to make a save to keep Town’s lead in tact. Twenty minutes of normal time remain and Conor Chaplin and Marcus Harness are replaced by Tyreece John-Jules and Sone Aluko. Town seem to have weathered the worst of what Forest Green can do and a shot on the turn from Sone Aluko almost seals the result. Another feeble chant of ‘Come On You Blues’ emanates from the sun struck recovering alcoholics on the far side of the ground. With time ebbing away tempers fray and Sam Morsy seems to be the target for some winding-up. He gives as good if not better than he gets but then stays down on ground to eek out some more time. “Wanker” calls out a rustic and slightly inebriated voice from somewhere behind me, it’s the most impolite thing I ‘ve heard all afternoon.
Six minutes remain and Kayden Jackson and Kane Vincent-Young replace Freddie Lapado and Wes Burns. The woman next to me has only just been convinced that the score isn’t two-all. The final minute arrives and Town’s Cameron Burgess is extremely lucky not to be sent off as he pulls back an opponent who appeared to have a free run a goal from about 20 metres out. “You don’t know what you’re doin” chant the home fans at the orange shirted referee, and they have a point, but he’s not alone as the fourth official holds up his electronic board showing a staggering nine minutes of added–on time. It sounds like long enough to lay down another strata of Oolitic Limestone, but it passes surprisingly quickly which is a probably a measure of how much Town are on top.
With the final whistle I bid farewell to the two women and make an unauthorised exit up the steps and through the hospitality area behind me, leaving the stand via the ‘grand’, carpeted central staircase before dashing off to join the queue for the white bus. I’ve had a lovely afternoon as I had thought I would. The win helped of course, but for a country lad The New Lawn has lived up to expectations, despite the obvious short comings such as no programmes, no decent, pointless souvenirs and inadequate staffing in the bar, but there’s more to life than collecting stuff and getting served quickly. The Football League needs more clubs like Forest Green Rovers.
‘How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers won the FA Cup (1975) by J L Carr
Cider with Rosie (1959) by Laurie Lee