History, it’s just one thing after another as the saying goes and that’s how it seems at Forest Green Rovers, English football’s first vegan club, first carbon neutral club, the first to travel to away games on an electric bus.
Last night, on the new-build fringes of a small Wiltshire town on the River Avon, in front of a modest crowd of 696 spectators, they claimed perhaps their most significant piece of footballing history, as they became the first club with a female coach in charge of their men’s first team.
Terms such as ground-breaking or pioneering hardly seem to do it justice, as reflected by an unusually large media presence to see Forest Green of League Two stutter through their first friendly of pre-season at the tidy home of Melksham Town of the Southern League Division One South, the eight-tier of the football pyramid.
Hannah Dingley appeared largely unmoved by the fuss. As caretaker head coach, she was mostly impassive on the touchline, passing on instructions to for coaching colleagues to yell out.
With a hand raised to shield her eyes from the low evening sun, she saw her team go behind to a spectacular 35-yard own goal and recover to equalise with a free-kick by Callum Jones, on loan from Hull City.
Hannah Dingley opened her account as Forest Green caretaker coach with a 1-1 friendly draw
She made history as the first female boss of a men’s league football team during the match
Just another day at the office for a fully qualified coach who has been head of the club’s academy for the last four years.
Supporters were more puzzled by the timing of Duncan Ferguson’s exit at the start of pre-season than by Dingley’s interim appointment. They are accustomed to chairman Dale Vince’s eye for the unorthodox.
‘I’ve always been a contrarian, I guess, and a bit of a rebel,’ Vince told Mail Sport last year and when he rolled into Melksham’s tidy Oakfield Stadium, 30 minutes before kick-off, he offered a stern response to those who think it’s all a gimmick.
‘I’d say f*** off,’ he rapped. ‘It’s a silly thing to say, it’s offensive to Hannah and to the club and to women in football because she’s easily the most qualified person at our club to be the interim head coach.
‘She’s got it on merit the same as she got the academy job on merit four years ago so I’ve no time for people who say that. It’s a cheap shot.’
Vince did not run the plan past his players first, but spoke to them at Oakfield. He thought their reaction had been ‘positive’ though he was aware they might have felt obliged say that. ‘I’ll have to spend more time with them to tease out what they think.’
Supporters reacted positively, too. Both on social media and in the stands. Season ticket holder Viv Kennedy came with a hastily-made cardboard banner which read ‘Go Hannah Go’ in support of Dingley on her big night.
‘Personally, I think it’s fantastic,’ she said. ‘I know there’ll be different views but I absolutely support it and I hope it’s permanent.
‘Hannah can do amazing things for us. She knows the club, knows the ethos, she’s hard working and she has been utterly devoted to the academy. It’s the way forward not just for FGR but for football, a step-change that can drive everything forward.’
Vince dived into conversation with Dingley in middle of the pitch as the players warmed up around them. It was the first time they had spoken, he said, since he sacked Ferguson on Tuesday night and released the statement to confirm he had put her in interim charge.
Fans were keen to back their new manager, insisting that she knew the club ethos very well
Chairman Dale Vince was keen to reiterate that the role of head coach was selected by merit
Dingley’s partner Mike strolled around the terraces with their dog and savoured this, her reward for many years of hard work against the odds.
Whether it becomes anything more remains to be seen. She declined to say whether she would apply for the job. Instead, insisting it was time to prepare the players and focus on the season, which starts against Salford City next month while happy to be blazing the trail.
‘I’m the first and that’s great but I don’t want to be the one and only,’ said Dingley. ‘We want change. We want more females in this position. More in youth football because then more of these opportunities will happen and naturally.
‘The lovely thing about tonight was how many girls were here. You can’t be what you can’t see. Hopefully girls will see there are opportunities and see there are open-minded people and open-minded environments.’