As Forest Green Rovers’ victorious players filed across the front of the Royal Box, they were greeted ecstatically by a figure sporting a leopard-print Hawaiian shirt, unbuttoned at the top.
Wembley has accommodated few football club owners quite like Dale Vince; the Football League will not have known many members like Forest Green either but when opponents such as Coventry City and Swindon Town visit the Gloucestershire side next season they are advised not to be disarmed.
This win against a frustrated Tranmere, brought about largely by two goals from the excellent winger Kaiyne Woolery, was fully deserved and marks the biggest step in a journey that, when Vince took over a debt-stricken operation in 2010, hardly seemed possible.
“It’s surreal really,” said the Forest Green manager, Mark Cooper, taking in the significance of a match whose decisive action unfolded before half-time. “I’m really chuffed for the chairman; he’s not conventional but he’s so good to work for. He gave me the opportunity to have full control of the football side and that’s what enticed me to come here.”
Cooper had only just been appointed when Forest Green lost last season’s promotion final against Grimsby Town. A repeat disappointment never looked likely after Woolery, dispossessing the dithering Tranmere captain Liam Ridehalgh and running through to finish confidently, scored his second to put them 3-1 up with then interval a minute away. Until then the game had been finely balanced but, after managing a Tranmere flurry in the early stages of the second half, some stout defending – laced with a healthy portion of gamesmanship – saw them through to vigorous celebrations in front of an outnumbered but vocal support.
Woolery, who has been on loan from Wigan Athletic, turned heads from the opening moments with his rapid acceleration although his first goal owed something to Tranmere’s inattention. He should not have been allowed to carry the ball from deep but his strike, crisp and low from 25 yards, was impressive and showed the confidence Cooper and his staff had attempted to instil in him during the buildup.
“We’ve been badgering him all week,” Cooper said. “His pace is phenomenal and we said every time he got the ball he had to push it, run and take Tranmere back down the pitch.”
It was the first of three finishes that befitted the scene. Tranmere’s equaliser, thumped into the roof of the net by Connor Jennings midway through the first half, was arguably the best of the lot and if James Norwood had scored when one-one-one with Sam Russell soon afterwards the afternoon would have taken on a very different hue. Russell saved with his legs; it was, as the Tranmere manager Micky Mellon wanly admitted, a decisive moment and eight minutes later Christian Doidge cut inside to fire brilliantly past Scott Davies and tip the scales Forest Green’s way once more.
Doidge used to play basketball for Wales; he would thus have been familiar with the opening period’s characteristics but Ridehalgh’s lapse made for a much more subdued remainder and gave Cooper the opportunity to reflect on how far the club, which he also represented as a player in the 2001-02 season, have come.
“You’ve got to remember we’re at the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere,” Cooper said. There would, he promised, be an evening of “very, very hard” celebrations and he confirmed that the vegan-only edict under which Vince’s organisation works did not extend to the beer on offer at the national stadium. Vince hopes eventually to take Forest Green to the Championship; there was certainly nothing buttoned-up about their performance here and Tranmere, who had finished nine points above them in the table, may not be the last established opponent to find themselves undone.