Essentials for another away day with Forest Green Rovers: road atlas, check, healthy snacks to avoid relegation to Greggs-induced elasticated trousers, check, expectation of EV charging anxiety, check, box of man-size tissues and cathartic playlist for the melancholy road home, check, writes Simon Hacker.
Actually, scrub the tissues and switch the music to upbeat: despite a stumbling series of home games so far in the new season, FGR have been unbeaten on the road. And do not adjust your eyesight because, with scoreboards merely telling you the headline from Saturday’s game, the trip to Notts County felt like one of FGR’s most promising days in a very long time. Some might even sense a curious victory.
Okay, scoreboards don’t lie, but you had to be there and, more crucially, be aware that, on the long road ahead to April 27th 2024, when we host this very team at The New Lawn in the final clash, today’s final tally was just a guiding statistic.
As that all-important ten-games-in marker post approaches next weekend, Saturday’s clash marked an opportunity to see how far FGR has come and where the club is going. And while Notts may have added another red X to our data, this was a moment to witness a team on fire and determined to put every plant-based fibre into the fight.
The setting for this drama was tough. Stadia anoraks, me included, get pretty twitchy about coming to places like this. NCFC has a backstory dating back to 1862, making FGR’s 1889 and all that look a bit upstart. Outside Meadow Lane, statues of legends Jimmy Sirrel and Jack Wheeler stare cynically at visitors, daring you to enter a crucible for combat that houses more than 20,000. For this game, FGR took (checks notes), 236 fans and we stared out at a throng of more than 10,000 notoriously raucous and justifiably confident chest beaters. It all felt a bit like Bilbo Baggins trying to pinch a bit of treasure in Smaug’s chamber: entombed within Notts County’s air fryer, we set our expectation dial to a roasting.
By half time, we were shaded medium-brown. A grim 2-0 already on the board, we hunkered down for the heat to crank up to full carbon.
Notts now have, among other formidables who’ve helped them rise to the top of the table this season, David McGoldrick, the darting, shiny-headed genius who hammered four nails into last season’s self-built FGR coffin during his tenure at Derby. When that second half began, I felt we were in for more loudspeaker booming from a compère who’s missing a serious career opportunity with Gala Bingo. True to form, yet more County players’ goal-gurning faces would eventually stare down from their big-brother screens: in the end, they got two more. But as I said, those are just numbers; you had to be there…
From minute 45 on, at 2-0, our boys went at Notts at a rate of, well, notts. Inside five minutes of action that had most fans wondering whether this was a collective hallucination, FGR turned the game on its head, Troy Deeney, ably fed by the ever-nimble Kyle McAllister and the human bollard Ryan Innis, putting the ball into their net twice. Yes, as in twice. It’s impressive to hear all those NCFC fans at full yell, but not half as lovely as listening to their gobsmacked 2-2 silence.
That delicious levelling up didn’t last very long: soon after, their team showed how resilient they were (and how we still need to tighten defence, even if we must await injured Jordan Moore Taylor’s return for a good while yet). But their previous chants about Troy Deeney’s calorific intake were absent thereon. And when he later found the back of the net again, a penalty giving FGR’s legendary striker and team coach a deserved hat-trick, you could feel the mood change on the pitch.
In all likelihood, with their fourth goal already against us, the final ten minutes, at 4-3, would not see Notts contemplating a draw and points shared, yet what was this? These impudent pink imposters from down south, that team that faceplanted in League One and was now apparently flirting with yet another relegation zone… it had the ball. And had it a lot. And did things with it. In a last-gasp header, Deeney, oh glorious Troy-boy Deeney! He hit the crossbar. And by millimetres, spared the hosts’ blushes.
After scraping ourselves from between the flip-up seats, we left feeling like we’d lost a tenner and found £9.99. Yes, FGR showed some defence errors, yes, this was no perfect performance, but we came here, to play the (now) best team in the league, and we put more goals into their home net this season than any other team has.
In the whites of their eyes from the game’s final section, you could read the shrewd pre-match forecast of their manager Luke Williams. FGR boss David Horseman, he said, is playing a ‘modern game’, and while we may not have been quite clicking so far, this is no team to underestimate. In fact, in a post-match interview he added: “Listen, Forest Green are going to go up the table for sure, because they are excellent.”
As I succumbed to a celebratory Gregg’s vegan sausage roll in the beautiful dining experience of Tamworth Services, that’s what I chewed on: today, we saw a team breaking free from expectation to shatter that familiar one-goal, late-concession pattern. True, the road also ran out on unbeaten away record, but amid this beautiful defeat, pessimism did not follow us home.
And if you can’t play in Robin Hood country without an obvious metaphor, let’s just say we didn’t quite steal from them to give to our own poor results, but this was a moment that bodes for an autumn when our squad will have every reason to be merry men. In the current cost-of-living crisis, all clubs, including Nailsworth’s finest, may feel a chill wind when it comes to selling season tickets and seats on the day. But for anyone who made it to witness the reality of what we saw today, I urge you not to miss next Saturday’s home game against Morecambe. Mr Horseman’s new steeds are raring to go and it might just be an unbridled apocalypse.
Pictures by Simon Hacker