Newark & Sherwood United - the vegan non-league club doing things differently

"Not everybody has been happy with those changes, one or two of the supporters are very critical. But I would say we have taken 95% of people on the journey with us."

“We’ve certainly had our share of away supporters chanting you can stick your vegan sausages up your…”, says Newark & Sherwood United chairman Steff Wright, before trailing off with a chuckle.

The ninth-tier club, who play in the non-league United Counties League Premier Division North, have experienced plenty of banter since becoming “plant-powered” following Wright’s takeover of the club in 2022.

Newark & Sherwood only serve vegan food at matches, both to fans and players, with many of the squad adopting plant-based diets.

The club will also mark 2024’s Green Football Weekend by announcing plans for a new zero-carbon stadium based in Newark, pending local authority permission.

Wright says they aim for it to be “the most sustainable stadium in the country”. He also describes Forest Green Rovers and their owner Dale Vince as “trailblazers in business and football”.

Forest Green, currently in League Two, became the world’s first vegan football club in 2015.

Turning a non-league club vegan has presented numerous challenges says Wright, both from outside the club and their own playing squad.

“When we beat opponents they are not as receptive, but that is a general reaction to the result of the game,” he tells BBC Sport. “Our own players, half are quite enthusiastic, half are resistant, but they are resistant to eating anything other than chicken nuggets. It’s like having children you have to re-educate about what a healthy diet looks like.

“The diet of players at this level has been terrible – to educate at this level is really important. At our level there is no education.”

While clubs higher up the English football pyramid are able to offer greater nutrition advice and education to players, doing so at this level is much trickier according to Jed Wright, the club’s operations manager and Steff’s son.

“We’ve got quite a young squad, a lot of who don’t cook for themselves and don’t eat the healthiest food in general,” he said.

“We emphasised the athletic benefits, rather than animal welfare or sustainability. It combatted a few of the key things you come up against when it comes to plant-based food in football. Toxic masculinity, you can call it.”


‘If you step off the straight line, people criticise’


Under Wright’s ownership, the club have tried to do many things differently – from inviting drag queens to MC a match to mark LGBTQ+ History Month in 2023, to turning the club vegan.

Wright, a former owner of Lincoln City, says it was easier to bring such radical ideas to non-league football because of the tumultuous changes the club has suffered in recent years.

Under the former guise of Newark FC, the club lost their ground three years ago when the land was sold to developers, forcing them to relocate 20 miles away to Nottingham.

Following Wright’s takeover, the club was rebranded and brought back to the local area after the ownership upgraded the facilities of local village club Collingham FC, allowing a groundshare.

“If you walk into a club which has been successful and you try to change things, it’s very easy for people to not come on board and to criticise you,” Wright says. “It was a lot easier for us.

“Not everybody has been happy with those changes, one or two of the supporters are very critical. But I would say we have taken 95% of people on the journey with us.”

There is the added complication of trying to maintain results on the pitch while progressing off it. Newark & Sherwood have struggled with the former – they sit 16th in the 18-team United Counties League Premier Division North, with just four wins in 22 league games this season.

Both Jed and Steff acknowledge that while they are proud of progress off the pitch, results have to come too.

“When things happen, when people choose to take the [expletive] out of what you are doing, that might be in the back of your mind – but I don’t think that makes it a bad thing at all,” says Jed.

Steff adds: “You have to win the football match. The trouble always is where you step off the straight line of just talking about football, sticking to traditional approaches, then you lose, people criticise.

“They say, ‘you can’t even win a football match’, ‘you’re doing this, doing that’. That’s always the difficulty, and why people aren’t brave when it comes to new ideas in football.”

But while the results are not coming yet for Newark & Sherwood, the owners show no sign of being diverted from their plans.

“We want to move back into Newark itself, and that leads to moving up the pyramid as high as we possibly can,” says Jed. “Whether that’s step two or the National League, we’ll take it as far as we can go.”

Original article published 03.02.2024 on the BBC Sport website.

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