A couple of weeks ago, someone in the facebook group “Football Stadia & Grounds” asked members to name the iconic features still in existence at British football grounds. Most mentioned the cottage at Craven Cottage, others Goodison Park and the Archibald Leitch stand at Ibrox – and a couple mentioned the mock Tudor entrance to Fratton Park in Portsmouth. And after visiting Fratton Park with the cottage from 1905 and the Archibald Leitch stand from 1925, I think it definitely must be in the top 5 iconic English grounds.
Actually, the club has been about to leave the ground several times over the past three decades; and the future is once again in doubt at the time of writing. But it would be a disaster, if they left.
Only the previous day, I had paid Brighton & Hove Albion a visit. A brand new stadium, built in the middle of nowhere. Despite the effort of giving an imprint of fan relations through a memorial garden, it just felt completely dead. Just off a station at Falmer – with green fields and a university campus next to it. There was no life at all.
Fratton Park was also deliberately built close to a train station; but also in a residential area. The main stand is right in the back yard of the neighbouring terraced houses. In fact, the reason why it hasn’t quite got the proportions of a standard Archibald Leitch stand is the very proximity to the houses which limited the allowed height of the construction.
I am fortunate that chairman of Pompey History Society, Colin Farmery, has agreed to give me a guided tour of the ground before kick-off. We meet in front of the cottage, which, according to Simon Inglis, was built in 1905, not 1898 when the club was formed and the club purchased the ground. The stadium was ready for use in the first week of September 1899 – the same week as Hillsborough, White Hart Lane, Highfield Road and Blundell Park.
A mock Tudor pub in Frogmore Road was built in connection with the cottage in 1900. Today, the ground floor of the former pub is the ticket office, whereas the first floor is used for hospitality. Originally, the pavillon had a balcony towards the pitch, as well as a clock tower. But that was demolished 20 years after, when Archibald Leitch came along.
Trying to catch up with the remaining Archibald Leitch stands before they are demolished, it is strange to come across something that was actually partly destroyed by Archie himself. But credit to him that he did not demolish the entire cottage. He built his stand into it, and I guess he put in these massive pillars to support the construction, as he ripped out the ground floor and made it into an entrance gate.
The reason why Archie was invited to built a new stand in the first place, was that Portsmouth in 1920 was elected to the football league – and in this way received a financial boost. In fact, the different chronological layers of the ground reflect the Pompeys’ fortunes on the pitch.
Colin takes me through to the Fratton End stand. It is a new stand, and it sums up well the turbulent years, Fratton Park has endured for the past three decades. Back in 1956 – only 6 years after Portsmouth last won the league – a new stand had been erected at that end, but just 30 years later, it was partially condemned, as the steel had been corroded by the concrete. With reduced capacity in the partisan end (only the lower tier), Portsmouth was relegated in 1988.
For the next years, plans for a new stand were partly thwarted by new requirements of the Taylor Report, partly by failed attempts to build a new stadium and to take over more land from the railway. It was not until 1996 that the remaining stand was demolished and replaced by the current Fratton End, which was opened in 1997.
Colin informs me that there is no proper space for a memorial garden, but inside the Fratton End, supporters are allowed to put up plaques for lost ones on a memorial wall. There are no standardization, no control. Fans are free to put a plaque to their liking. This has turned out so popular that there are actually four walls.
But beside these memorial walls, there is also a Wall of Fame, where fans have paid £50 for having a standardized plaque put up. Portsmouth are famous for the fans having rallied to save the club and take it over financially – only to sell it to a business man, hoping he can put the money necessary to compete at the top level of football into it.
Outside the Northern Stand, all the fans who bought shares to save the club are listed, just as they are commemorated outside the cottage with a blue plaque: “We cannot change the past, but we can shape the future”.
We walk through the Fratton End stand to have a look at the main stand from this side. A striking feature is the television gantry on top of the stand, rather than the characteristic Archibald Leitch gable. I wonder if the television gantry replaced it. Anyway, I am glad I don’t have to climb the stairs to it.
Another Archibald Leitch feature which is conspicuous by its apparent absence is the criss cross fencing of the balcony. It is there, hidden underneath an advertising hoarding, but Colin informs me that it actually was fire safety regulations in the wake of the Bradford City fire disaster in 1985 that resulted in the coding of the wooden fence behind the steel crossing.
In fact, the criss-crossing can be discerned in the concourse underneath the stand. It is still there. Colin tells me, that if the new owners of the club decide to stay at Fratton Park, it his dream to make the stand a living football museum. Split in four sections, each section will be turned back to a decade to give fans an experience of football in decades gone past. To me, it sounds like a fantastic idea. It would be even greater if you were allowed to have standing sections with crush barriers in the paddock in the ‘old’ sections – and maybe even make track the food and drinks being sold in old days. I guess Bovril was the bestseller back in the 1950’s.
As Portsmouth was the first English club to stage a floodlit league match back in 1956, I am interested in having a closer look at the floodlights. After all, floodlight pylons are becoming a rarity at football grounds. The days of the pylons, though, seem numbered at Fratton Park as well. Floodlights are now fixed to the roof of the north stand, and one of the pylons look sadly impotent without any lights.
As much as Colin is keen on preserving the historic features, he is not that bothered by the potential scrapping of the floodlight pylons. After all, the pylons were not erected until 1962. Originally the were placed on the roof like they are now. I am the romantic one, loving the sight of floodlight pylons in the distance indicating from afar that here lies a football ground.
Colin awaits s group of visitors to the university to take on a guided tour. They are a bit a late, so there is time for Colin to show me some of the historic objects on display in the mock-tudor ticket office building.
The top floor is being prepared for matchday hospitality. The building is very atmospheric, but I will have to admit that the space is rather limited, compared to modern stadiums – and thus the possibility of generating revenue from hospitality. Which is, sadly, one of the factors in the decision making on whether to stay at Fratton Park or move to another ground.
As the university group arrive, we proceed through the old office building to the board room, which is also used for hospitality. At one end, there is a painting of Lord Nelson’s HMS Victory, but I am more interested in the plaque declaring that this steel column marks the commencement of Archibald Leitch’s stand.
As the directors’ box is situated right in the middle of the stand, we have to walk through a corridor for stadium security to get there from the board room. As usual, padded seats testify that we are, indeed, in the directors’ box.
However, I am more interested in Archibald Leitch features. Like the roofing. Somehow, the gabled roof gives a completely different feeling to the stand. You feel that you enter a room, rather than just being sheltered by a roof. It also gives a different soundscape to most modern grounds.
Under the television gantry, the roof has been strengthened by steel constructions. That must be comforting to know for the camera men, who have to make the climb.
The columns are basic steel columns – not as fine as some of the others of his creations, but the steelfitting to the roof construction has the right has the right Archibald Leitch look.
Another element that gives this indoor feeling and slightly different soundscape is the wooden floor. In concrete stands, the acoustics are more like a parking house.
A final feature that I notice is the directors’ box is the elegant railing of the stair.
Nest stop is the home dressing room, which is all set for the arrival of the players with under 3 hours to kick-off with the fruit already in.
Each player has been handed a sheet on the day’s opponents, Blackpool.
The best thing, though, is the whiteboard with the short assessments of an opposition team. I can’t recognize the names, and they may be from a reserve or junior match. But it really gives the dressing room feel: “9 McGrath. Strong, compete, will run all day, is a threat”.”8 Aguair – can play”. “6 Headland. Aerially dominant, lacks pace, compete”.
Leaving the dressing room, we walk down the narrow corridor towards the players’ tunnel. “Fortress Fratton” proclaims the message on the wall just outside the home dressing room. “Play up Pompey!” says the board hanging on the stair the final steps down to the tunnel.
The final message for the players before they enter the field is another reminder for the players of the historic roots of the club: “Remember who you represent! 30,000 men from Portsmouth served to fight in the Great War alone, many of these were recruited at Fratton Park. Over 6,000 never returned. This Portsmouth, people went to war from this city”.
After this message, you would have expected an old fashioned dug-out for manager and reserves, but no. It is just rows of modern, comfortable chairs. The dug-outs were probably demolished when more than one substitute was allowed.
The downside to some of the supporters in the old Archibald Leitch stands is, of course, that they were not intended to cover all the fans standing in the paddock at the front. And now that seats have been installed there, you risk the rather dubious pleasure of sitting in the rain watching a match. The roof at Fratton Park does, however, cover most of the seat rows – as long as the wind and rain is not coming from the north.
Last stop of the tour is the stair leading to the upper tier of the Archibald Leitch stand – with the board displaying ticket prices in the 1950’s. If only other clubs had preserved and made use of historic features like this, the many modern grounds wouldn’t have been quite as anonymous and boring.
Colin has to get back to match day duties, and I thank him for a brillant tour. There is still almost 2½ hours till kick-off, so I walk down Carlsbrooke Road along the terraced houses that are almost attached to the Archibald Leitch stand. Only the floodlight pylons reveal that they have a stadium in their back garden.
Along the Milton End, the stand is at least sepearated from the housing by Specks Lane. But still, it gives you a feeling that the ground has been shoehorned down among terraced houses more than a hundred years ago – a far cry from stadiums like Brighton’s, which look more like spaceships that have landed in a desolate place as far from populated areas as possible.
The roof to the Milton End stand was only added in 2007 after away fans had been complaining for several years over having to sit it out in the rain. For such a modern construction, it is quite rare to have pillars, partially obstructing view.
The North Stand almost looks like an Archibald Leitch stand with its gabled roof and a slight bend in the middle of it. And just like the Leitch stand, it was opened by John McKenna, only 10 years later, in 1935. Again, it was success on the field in reaching the FA Cup final, that generated the money.
It was built as a standing terrace, but in 1951, seats were installed in the upper tier, with the rest of the stand being seated in 1996, at which time the wooden seats in the upper tier were replaced by plastic seats. As a nice gesture, the roof was extended slightly to give some cover to the front rows.
I manage to get a glimpse of the concourse in the North Stand. I like it with the open room and steel constructions. It will be worth watching a match from the North Stand for the concourse alone.
As I get round to the outhside of the Fratton End, some of the Portsmouth players arrive for the match, among them defender Christian Burgess and winger Jamal Lowe. Compared to all the security and restrictions at Premier league matches, it is great to see players stopping for autographs and photos with the fans.
When the gates are opened, I enter the Archibald Leitch stand’s upper section – I need a pie. The concourse may not be as spacious as in modern grounds – but the windows make it quite bright, and it doesn’t really feel congested. As for the pie, it is quite good – not the standard pukka pie.
Along with the financial aspect of lack of hospitality, another complaint with old grounds is the lack of comfort. Not enough space between the seats and restricted view from the pillars holding the roof. I have a pillar in front me, obstructing my view of the penalty spot. But I can see the goal clearly, and if I move a little from side to side, I can actually follow all the action. And being 6 foot 5, I am probably more likely than most to suffer the effects of lack of space between the seat rows. But I don’t feel troubled by either at all. It just serves to remind me that my body is actually inside a football ground – and I am not sitting at home in my comfortable armchair watching television. This is how it should feel like.
I have heard that the Fratton End is noisy and generates a great atmosphere at Portsmouth matches, but I must admit that I am quite disappointed to find out that most of the noise is generated by the almost constant banging on a drum, accompanied by a bugle and bell by a couple of dressed-up Portsmouth fans. A week later, I express my dislike for drumming at football matches in a facebook group – and get just short of 450 responses. To me, the special thing about British football are the ooohhhhs and arrrggggs of the crowd living through the dramatic peaks of the game. How the volume noise increases as an attack starts to look promising – and either fizzles out or culminates in a roar. You live the ebbing and flowing of the match. But the constant drumming spoils that. There is no increase in noise level correlated to events on the field. In many grounds, in fact, the drumming is orchestrated by leaders with their back to the game. They are completely out of sync with events on the field. And as these modern ‘ultra’ sections are generally relative small, they don’t make a lot of noise. They just make the rest of the ground go even more quiet, as the monotonous drumming blurs out the game as a spectacle.
Most of the 450 respondents to my post agree. Some point out that all-seaters and football tourists have made stadiums go so quiet, so you have to try out anything that may have a reverse effect; a few others point out that it is mainly younger fans trying to adapt this element, and the older generation should allow them to develop their way of consuming a match. And finally, a handful of fans are offended. They point out that the Portsmouth drum, bell and bugle go back more than 10 years and are not just an attempt at ‘ultra fan culture’. They claim it usually instrumental in generating a good atmosphere – but at the same time admit, that the atmosphere for this match against Blackpool was unusually poor. Just like the match.
And yes, the match is really poor. There are so many poor passes and miscontrols that you resign to the fact that post teams mainly resort to hoofing long balls forward. And very soon, you get the impression that the away team Blackpool just have that little more aggression and desire to win the duels for these balls at both ends of the pitch.
Especially the Blackpool number 7, Kyle Vassell looks menacing as he gives powerful chase to all the long balls. The fans around me are worried. “Watch out for that number 7”, the guy behind me keeps saying.
According to the pattern of the game, Blackpool takes the lead shortly before halftime, when the Portsmouth defender Christian Burgess (whom I was looking out for after seeing him arriving to the game and being a central defender myself) tried to control a long ball rather than just hoof it away. He was rubbed by the Blackpool number 7 Kyle Vassel, who calmy slotted the ball home when one on one with the keeper. At least, it allowed the guy behind me to shout out “I told you so! That number 7! He was the one to look out for!” They should have written that on the whiteboard in the dressing room.
In the second half, Blackpool double their lead. I am reminded of a chapter in one of my favourite football books, Daniel Gray’s “50 Eternal delights of modern football”. One of the delights is “Watching an away end erupt”. But, as Gray points out, “It has to be a large following for the full effect. Away ends in which 143 supporters sit freckled across plastic seats don’t work. When their teams score, they resemble the survivors of a shipwreck waving for help”. There may be more than 143 Blackpool supporters, but that is nevertheless exactly what they look like. Especially with a number of orange shirts scattered among them, looking like life jackets.
There is no way back for Portsmouth in this. The fans around me resign immediately completely after the second goal, and some start leaving. Time to do my usual statistical mini-survey of the local crowd, counting the 100 spectators immediately around me. There is an usually high percentage of women, 26%, which, I think, only Sunderland has been able to equal. But the ethnic composition is very one-sided. 100% white.
The air is thick from frustration, but as the crowd is absorbed in the narrow streets around the ground, I have got a feeling that the frustration is washed away. For more than 100 years, fans have been leaving this ground through these very streets. Jubilation or relief have always followed frustration. It will again. It is part of this place’s history. This was just a single match in very long history. Place gives perspective.
I make my way back to Fratton station. Time to reflect. Fratton Park is certainly in my top five British football grounds. The Archibald Leitch stand and the mock tudor pavillon are not the only reasons. Together, the four stands reveal archaological layers from football throughout a century. All shaped by the streets of terraced housing around the ground. And although the atmosphere in this match was not particularly great, the fact the fact that it was almost a capacity crowd (just like the rest of Portsmouth’s home matches) testifies to the proud history and tradition around the ground. It will, indeed, be fitting, if Colin’s vision for the Archibald Leitch stand is realized. Then all proper football fans will have to go and live this experience.