50 years after his first visit, a Portsmouth fan still delights in the old home
Fulham and Reading play in the same division and are separated by only 38 miles. From a spectator’s viewpoint, though, they are worlds apart. You can hop from one world to the other by watching these teams play each other home and away in the Championship this season.
Craven Cottage is a much-loved, authentic English football ground. It is flanked on one side by the Thames, on another by attractive but unaffordable homes – unless you have £5million to spare for one of the larger ones. The walk from the tube or rail station takes you through a leafy park by the river.
Nice walk, pleasant surroundings, warm ambience; Craven Cottage feels just right. It has charm, lots of it, and there are decent pubs within walking distance. In those unscientific ‘new research shows’ surveys that pop up every now and then, it is the favourite away trip for other clubs’ supporters.
That tangible charm is one of the reasons why Australia have played a few games there and why Gibraltar, when they were considering playing qualifying matches in London, made Craven Cottage their choice of home from home.
Other grounds have less of Fulham’s charm but a similar feel. Liverpool, Everton, Leeds, Norwich, Newcastle, Villa, Wolves, Brentford, Burnley, Sheffield United, Notts County and others. Authentic grounds with a good atmosphere, usually close to pubs and public transport.
At the other end of the charm scale is the purely functional stadium. Plenty of football fans would spend an evening at Craven Cottage to watch Gibraltar. They would do no such thing at Reading’s Madejski Stadium.
It is just about a full day’s hike from the railway station. You can get there by park and ride, through a retail park, or you can leave your car by a busy road and walk. There are no parks or handsome homes around the stadium, just a whole range of places that need car parks to function. Pubs? Never seen any.
On entering the ground you soon realise that Reading are Champions League quality when it comes to health and safety, to getting their local authority stadium licence in good time. And you would not be alone in thinking, “Thank God we don’t play here.”
There are plenty more like the soulless Madejski, sometimes miles away from civilisation and always a world away from Craven Cottage. Not many visiting fans speak highly of Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium or West Ham’s new home in the Olympic Park. Nor do they of Middlesbrough, Walsall, Coventry, Scunthorpe or Doncaster.
Some of the new or redeveloped stadiums still feel like proper grounds – Sunderland, Stoke, Derby, Huddersfield, Charlton, West Brom for example. And like them or not the newcomers all serve their purpose in twenty-first century English football: they are family-friendly, safe, have plenty of loos and over-priced refreshments. And lots of corporate boxes.
They are the polar opposite of my favourite ground, a cousin of Craven Cottage that is old, decrepit, hemmed in by terraced houses in a fairly tough part of a very tough city. A place whose charm is less genteel than Craven Cottage, more dockyard than riverside. A place that does not have a single corporate box.
Google the words “Fratton Park dump” and you will get plenty of reading material. But look on the message boards where someone has slagged it off, and you will find, a few posts further on, somebody else saying, “Yes, but it has the best atmosphere in England.”
The bloodline between the two is provided by Archibald Leitch, the godfather of English football architecture whose masterpieces include the main stand and the South Stand at Fratton Park, and Fulham’s iconic Johnny Haynes Stand. The mock-Tudor main entrance at Fratton Park is the equal of the beautiful brickwork that welcomes you to Craven Cottage.
But Fratton’s charm is not that of west London, rather it is the seedy charm that Soho used to have, that certain seaside towns, pubs, formerly grand hotels and racecourses still have.
If seedy charm is not your thing you might not like Fratton Park. If you have never been you should go all the same, while you can, because it is the dinosaur of English football. There is nowhere else quite like it. And, in the next few years, it is likely to be modernised. If that happens the capacity might rise from 19,000 to 30,000. Hopefully it would lose nothing of its atmosphere, but there has to be a risk.
What makes Fratton unique? For a start, that lack of a corporate air. During Portmouth’s Premier League years, 2003-2010, it was a south coast badge of honour that non-league Eastbourne Borough had more executive boxes than Fratton Park.
How many other clubs have been around for 120-odd years and had only one home?
How many other clubs have a warning sign attached to the wall ahead of the front-row seats, below pitch level in the South Stand, that reads, “Beware of players falling into this area”?
Or a large sign just above the turnstiles a few yards away that reads, in very large letters, “Football League matches, unreserved seats 5/6, Football Combination 2/6”?
That works out at 28p and 13p in new pence, as we used to say about 45 years ago. The sign was probably painted in 1959. The cobbled floor underneath it is 60 years older than that, dating right back to when Fratton Park was built, largely with beer money. The brewery owner Sir John Brickwood was the main backer in 1898 when the club was formed and moved in. He made sure to put one of his pubs right next to the main entrance.
Of course Fratton Park has changed, and shrunk in capacity by about two thirds despite being on the same site. There is a new Fratton End, opened in 1997, and a roof on the Milton End, which for four years until 2007 was the only uncovered away end in Premier League football. There are seats where 25,000 used to stand, on two tiers, in the North Stand.
Even the infamous camber on the pitch has been landscaped out of existence (just as well, as a referee once measured the height of the crossbar in the middle of the Fratton End goal and found it was six inches short).
But both the South and North Stands are still basically wooden, which helps to keep the noise level as high as ever. The turnstiles, now automated, are in the same places. Dingy alleyways still run behind two of the stands. The walk from a still grotty Fratton Station is essentially the same, and the surrounding streets have not been gentrified. A flat in Carisbrooke Road, where the garden walls are part of the South Stand, costs one tenth the price of a flat next to Craven Cottage.
Patrick Collins, who was the Mail on Sunday’s top sports writer for decades, summed up the fans’ love of Fratton Park in 2008, after AC Milan had a Europa League culture shock. The noise never relented, even when Milan got back to 2-2, and the Italians were said to have been “blown away” by the experience. Whether Ronaldinho, Inzaghi, Kaká and company understood the chants, at 2-0 down, of “Are you Bournemouth in disguise?” is another matter.
In his column Collins wrote of the home fans, “When they look around Fratton Park, they realise how much they love it. They love the rickety stands and the wooden seats and the way the whole place reverberates when a home goal is scored. They love their closeness to the action, as if they were part of the story rather than an impotent audience. They are proud that their team has played at the same ground for 110 years and they suspect that the founding fathers would find their way around that ground today.
“They love the un-corporateness of it all, the way it prizes pasties above prawn sandwiches, the fact that it represents a living, wheezing, paint-peeling link with the past. And they know that, while he may have watched his football at the other end of the country, LS Lowry would have recognised a Pompey crowd Going to the Match.”
Another fan is Thierry Henry. The home fans sang his name when he gave a man-of-the-match performance for Arsenal in a 5-1 FA Cup win in 2004. Henry walked around the Fratton pitch in a Portsmouth shirt to applaud the supporters.
“It was something I’ve never had in my whole life,” he said. “That’s why I love the game in England – the people are so passionate.”
Colin Farmery, a lifelong Pompey fan who works for the club as inclusion officer and media man, said the South Stand was built in 1925 as a statement of intent: “Watch out - we’re going to be a First Division club.” Two years later, they were. When Jimmy Allen was sold to Aston Villa for a record £10,775 in the 1930s the transfer fee was used to build the North Stand. This time the message was “We’re here to stay.”
Two League Championships and an FA Cup by the end of the 1940s showed they meant it. Crowds of more than 50,000 squeezed into Fratton Park in the glory years, but by the end of the 1950s Pompey were heading downwards.
The ground went down in history in February, 1956, when it staged the first floodlit match in the Football League, a 2-0 away win for Newcastle in the old First Division. Only 15,831 turned up: nobody thought it would catch on.
In the 1970s the club went into serious decline and for decades Fratton Park was steadily and increasingly left behind as football changed, not least because of new laws after the Bradford and Hillsborough disasters.
The famous crisscross design along the South Stand, an Archibald Leitch speciality that also marked out Highbury, Goodison, Roker and Ibrox, disappeared after essential safety work. Terracing became rows of seats, but not fast enough. Bodge jobs were done all over the ground, toilets were hopelessly inadequate, new stairways were needed.
The Fratton End’s famous two-tier terracing could not survive a stress test in 1986 and had to be chopped in half then bulldozed and rebuilt, work that took far too long when money was short.
“The top half was condemned in 1986, because the aggregate used in the concrete had been taken from the Solent and the salt in it had caused steel to corrode,” explained Farmery. He did not say so, but clearly if the aggregate was not strong enough it must have come from the Southampton end of the Solent.
By 1996 the ground was in such a state that capacity was restricted to about 7,500. “That was the low point, the saddest time in Fratton Park’s history,” said Farmery.
A new Fratton End opened in 1997. Promotion to the Premier League came six years later and another FA Cup triumph in 2008. But during seven years of top-level football the club had its share of dodgy owners and all the money went on wages.
Fratton Park needs constant care and attention. “It’s like the Forth Road Bridge,” said Farmery. “During our seven years in the Premiership half a billion pounds went through the club but we have bugger all to show for it at Fratton Park, apart from a roof on the Milton End.”
The club famously went bust and sank to the lower reaches of League Two before going up as champions in 2016-17. Years of supporters trust ownership stabilised Pompey and the club has been bought recently by Michael Eisner, the American billionaire who was chief executive of Disney.
“As a community club we had the bill for the backlog of maintenance that was not even planned, let alone carried out, in the Premier League years and we spent £3million, not that you can see much of where it’s gone,” said Farmery. It went on essential safety work, new stairs, levelling off of steps and so on.
That money has not rescued the Milton End from its awfulness. The view of Fratton Park is arguably better from here than anywhere else but the facilities are at their worst.
Because this is where the away fans go, many of them start with a low opinion of the ground.
One story has it that when the supporters trust took over and started investigating a bodged up structure near the Boilermakers Hump, the Milton End area where dockyard boilermakers used to congregate, dozens of rats ran out. There are blackberry bushes growing in the rubbish-strewn area behind the stand, above an alleyway.
This part of the ground needs a revamp but there are gardens a few yards away. The best opportunities for increasing capacity are the North Stand and the Fratton End, because the club owns a bit of land behind them and there are no gardens to worry about.
“If we redevelop, you can do what you like,” said Farmery. “The new owners [Eisner and his sons] seem keen not to take away from what Fratton Park gives you. They do not want to produce a soulless bowl. Fratton Park is one of the main things that attracted the Americans, it convinced them that this is a real football club with tradition, history, authenticity.
“This is one of the few grounds left where it will feel like the 60s, 70s, an old-fashioned football experience – not in a better or worse way than elsewhere, but a fundamentally different football experience to somewhere like the Emirates. It has intimacy and other clubs lose when they move to a new stadium. Once you get inside the ground it takes over.”
There is a rumour in the US that one of the other clubs Eisner looked at was Reading. Fratton Park might be a lot more down-at-heel than the Madejski, but if the rumour is true Eisner clearly knows a good thing when he sees it.