An Innocent Partnership?

By Callum Jones

When Dale Vince took over majority ownership of Forest Green Rovers in 2010 it was the beginning of a new era in the club’s long history. With his arrival came mixed responses from the fans, some welcomed Mr Vince with optimism, fresh ideas, fresh money, a fresh ethos. Others became sceptical over time regarding his “green” ways, and there remains a large split between the fans.

Us football fans aren’t always the most open to change; we always hope for our favoured clubs to improve and compete to the level we all pray they can, but preferably without throwing away our traditions and class. As an Arsenal fan myself, the general consensus from the circle I find myself in is that the ownership of a club is extremely important to upholding these traditions.

The traditions of FGR, from an outsider’s perspective, seems to have been thrown straight out the window when Mr Vince took over the club. In 2011 he started to introduce his eco-friendly agenda into the club in quite a radical and some would say forward-thinking way. Vince has brought in vegan food for the players, removed any traces of meat from the menu for fans on match day and even brought in an organic football pitch. It’s hard to argue that from an environmental standpoint, these changes are fantastic. However these changes, along with the many others, have caused quite a lot of backlash from long standing supporters of the club that Mr Vince has taken from Non-League football to League Two.

For a lot of fans it’s hard to imagine going to a game of football on a cold winter’s Saturday afternoon and not grabbing yourself a burger or bacon sandwich before the game – it’s almost an unwritten rule for many supporters. However the Forest Green fans have been doing this for quite a few years now, substituting their beef burgers for Quorn, along with the other vegan options on the menu on game day (not that there’s been a game day we’re allowed to go to for a few months now). The backlash has made supporters ask the question; even if it is better for the environment, is it fair for the owner of a football club to push an agenda on its loyal supporters like this? 

This year has seen a lot of change in the football world, with teams in the lower leagues particularly struggling to come up with the funds they need in order to improve squads, or even just to exist. With a lack of support from the government, the FA (so far), and from Premier League teams not being able to come to an agreement on the £250m bailout for lower league football with Project Big Picture – the proposal from Liverpool and Manchester United bosses that would see a huge change in financing and league structure – being widely rejected after causing quite the backlash. Leaving teams like Forest Green Rovers seem to be trying to find all the money they can from other avenues. Arsenal’s greenie right back Hector Bellerin buying a percentage off the club from Dale Vince shows that FGR are obviously going nowhere fast, but if fans aren’t allowed back into the stadium this season then who knows what may happen to any team.

One of the sources of income Mr Vince seems to have found is selling the naming rights to the New Lawn stadium to Innocent, the smoothie company. At first glance this all seems to make sense. Innocent make fruit smoothies, FGR are all about healthy and environmentally friendly ways of living and Innocent do a lot of great charity work all over the world; it’s hard to argue this looks like a good collaboration. It was even a particularly nice touch that they allowed the season ticket holders of the club to vote on the new name, eventually choosing to name it the Innocent New Lawn, which should keep the purist FGR fans happy. 

However, when you take a deeper look into Innocent, the collaboration no longer seems to make a great deal of sense from FGR’s standpoint. Innocent are 90% owned by the Coca-Cola company, who have been accused of some pretty atrocious environmentally damaging moves along with a few human rights violations for good measure. Not to mention the fact that they are the world’s largest plastic polluter according to a study by “Break free from plastic”, which found that the company was responsible for 6% of the world’s entire plastic pollution, more than the next three companies below combined. 

There has been some backlash from fans regarding the move: some have been branding it as “selling out”, with many pointing out on social media how the Coca-Cola company doesn’t exactly fall in line with the ethos of Forest Green Rovers as a club. One Twitter user stated that he will no longer be following the club after this move as it tarnishes the FGR name. 

One Forest Green fan I spoke to suggests that there is a point to be made on the matter, however companies like Innocent always need to grow and expand and backing from Coca-Cola allowed for that to happen. The feeling from him is that Innocent still have the same team at the top, and still have the same ethos as they did before the takeover regarding climate change and environmental issues.

However, the backing from Coca-Cola allowed them to get their name out there on a larger scale and push their agenda to a wider audience, so he feels that the partnership is one that makes sense.

There are several possible reasons for Mr Vince opting for a collaboration with Innocent: it could be that he deemed the Innocent brand to be far enough removed from any Coca-Cola branding that the company was still a good match for the football club, or he had hoped no one would realise the connection to Coca-Cola, or maybe they just needed the money and it was the only offer they got? At the end of the day, the football world is one of many secrets (especially when it comes to financials) so it’s highly unlikely we will ever find out the truth. The usually vocal Mr Vince has been rather quiet at responding to the numerous fans who have called him out on the matter, however I imagine there will be a response eventually.

After years of gaining trust back with fans after taking their burgers and pies away, could this move caused yet another rift between fans and ownership? Whilst it’s worth mentioning that this may not be a particular issue for most fans, there is a type of fan out there that is particularly on board with the environmentally friendly vision of the club and may find it disconcerting that Mr Vince has taken this route.  It’s hard to argue that the club has certainly improved, moving from non-league football into a cemented place in League Two, and potentially challenging to move even higher, which may have helped with fan’s dismay.

However, the facts are there for those who look closer: Mr Vince’s success in moving the club up the league table has been tainted for some by taking away traditions and now potentially undermining his entire standpoint. Could this cause a particular type of environmentally conscious fan to think of Mr Vince as a hypocrite? Has Mr Vince taken any consideration to the backlash that has come from this, and will he respond with justification for these actions? It may not seem to some that this is a big deal in the grand scheme of things, just a club trying to get by with a company partner that is at its core has an environmentally friendly ethos. It’s only when you look deeper into the companies backing that questions start to arise if this is the right partner for Forest Green.

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