Let’s meet another English
football soccer club that I have visited in my travels: Ladies and Gentlemen, say hello to Portsmouth FC!
UPDATE: Many thanks to the various Pompey supporters for their kind words and mild corrections to this piece!
I am always trying to get Americans to leave London and go see some clubs they haven’t seen on NBC or ESPN. Part of that is getting them to understand how small England is compared to the US. Newcastle and Sunderland fans, for example, are constantly given credit for traveling all the way to London, some four hours, just to see a match. In the US, my beloved Portland Timbers have the most intense rivalry in all of MLS with the Seattle Sounders, who are a three-hour drive away on a good day.
Also, there are many cool tourist sites not in London or Bath or the Cotswolds or Oxford or what have you. So, when I find the intersection of these things — cool club and town and stadium — I try to get people to go there.
Along those lines, if you’re up for a 90-minute train ride to go back in time, inside and outside a football ground, and especially if you have any interest in naval war history, get yourself down to Portsmouth and catch a game at Fratton Park.
Before I started my travels, all I knew of Portsmouth — literally, the whole town — was that they have a soccer club and they really, really hate Southampton. But we’ll get to that.
When I rolled into town to catch a game, however, I noticed a very strong trend in the local sites: docks, HMS, spinnaker, quay, armory, D-Day … Portsmouth the town seems to owe its entire identity to making war from the sea. In fact, the town’s (and club’s) nickname of Pompey comes from a naval term: the ship-log abbreviation for Portsmouth Point is Po.mP. And it’s pronounced POM-pee, not like the place in Italy. Don’t screw that one up.
The city goes back to Roman times, but the “modern” city was founded in 1180, then given royal permission to hold a fair in 1194. (Apparently this is a thing in Britain). They got a charter from Edward II in 1313 (also apparently a thing). It was, then and since, a very important port, being so close to both London and France.
By the 19th Century it was the most fortified port in all of Europe, and it was here in 1805 that Lord Nelson left with his fleet to defeat the French and Spanish at Trafalgar. In British military history, this seems as important as Midway and Iwo Jima and Valley Forge all rolled into one. (See Trafalgar Square and so on.)
Portsmouth is also the main place that the D-Day invasion left from (Eisenhower’s headquarters were nearby).
Today it’s a city of about 200,000 people, the only island city in the country by the way, with more naval-history tourist attractions in the area than you can shake a gaff hook at. It’s about a 90-minute, £20 (advance) train trip from London Waterloo.
Sites to See
- The Mary Rose Museum displays a 16th-century sunken warship that was found in 1971 and raised nearly intact in 1982 — one of the most famous such raisings in history. There are thousands of artifacts, intense research, and even skeletons of some crew members.
- The HMS Victory was Nelson’s flagship and in fact is still a commissioned vessel of the Royal Navy. You can take a tour of this massive ship, including the precise spot where Nelson died at Trafalgar.
- Both of the above are in the Historic Dockyards, along with the submarine museum, the 1860 HMS Warrior, harbor tours, the Royal Navy museum, an explosives museum … I mean, if you’re into this stuff, it’s heaven in Portsmouth.
- The D-Day Museum also includes the 272-foot-long Overlord Embroidery.
- The Royal Armories are another military museum, but one that occasionally shoots live cannons.
- The Spinnaker Tower, built to look like a sail, is a 560-foot observation tower in Portsmouth Harbour. There are many options to visit, but the basic trip up is about £10 for an adult.
- Gunwharf Quays is a recently redeveloped area of shops and cafes.
- Old Portsmouth is where you’ll find the cathedral, pubs that date to the 17th century, and the town’s small fishing fleet.
There are the historic pubs in Old Portsmouth, but the ones most associated with the football club are the Good Companion and the Shepherd’s Crook. The former has become a designated away-fans pub, and the latter is closer to the ground, with a large outdoor area (just in case it isn’t raining).
On Milton Road, close to the ground, look for the Milton Arms and the Brewers Arms.
Also, you might come across John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood (yes, that’s his legal name) at the football-themed Newcome Arms:
Portsmouth Women play in the Women’s National League South, tier 3 of the pyramid. Home games are at the ground of Baffins Milton Rovers FC, in the eastern part of the city.
I feel like I say this all the time, but Portsmouth was founded in the 19th century, had glory days in the early 20th and again later, then almost went out of business and was saved, and now are building back up. If that sounds familiar, it’s pretty much the story of 50% of English clubs.
The club was founded in 1898 by a pub owner and some friends; there is a Blue Plaque at 12 High Street in Old Portsmouth that commemorates the founding. For the ground, they picked a piece of land near Fratton Station, and they have played on that spot ever since.
The founders hoped they might get a rivalry going with already-existing clubs in Brighton and Southampton. They were right on one count. In fact, in their first home game they beat Southampton 2-0, and if I know Portsmouth at all, they’ve been singing about that result ever since.
They climbed up through the leagues, reaching the First Division in the late 20s and losing the FA Cup finals in 1928 and 1934 before finally winning it in 1939. They won the league in 1949 and 1950, hung around the top through the decade, and got relegated in 1959.
The decline continued, and by 1978 they were in the Fourth Division facing bankruptcy. They actually went bankrupt in 1988 and then had a long period of mediocrity and instability until the early 2000s.
Legendary manager Harry Redknapp arrived in 2002 and took them to the championship of Division One (which we now call the Championship; it’s confusing), after which they spent eight years in the Premier League. He then left for Southampton, causing many fans to hate him forever, but then he came back, and they were divided … it’s complicated.
The two memorable events in this stretch were winning the FA Cup in 2008 (winning at Man U along the way), and the last day of the 2004-05 season, when Portsmouth lost at West Bromwich Albion, which meant that West Brom stayed up and Southampton went down, leading to both sets of fans partying on the pitch at The Hawthorns. Look for the blue shirts at the end of this clip:
Financial woes led to another relegation in 2010, In 2012, the Pompey Supporters Trust bought the team, then down in League Two. In the 2016-17 season, they won League Two, putting them up in League One for the current campaign; the Supporters Trust sold the club to a member of the Eisner (Disney) family that summer.
And they may be on the up. They made the League One playoffs each of the last two seasons, and in 2019 they made the League Trophy final, where they and Sunderland combined to break the attendance record for that competition with 85,021 at Wembley. Pompey won it on penalty kicks. They made the final again for 2020, but this time they lost to Salford City of League Two.
To say that Southampton is a rival would be like saying the ocean is rather damp. I’ll give you just one example: When I saw them play Fleetwood Town, the fans constantly booed a Town player, which I assumed was for something he did during the game. Then it occurred to me that he might have played for Southampton, which in Portsmouth makes you “scum” forever more.
Nope — I saw later on Twitter that they were taunting him because he grew up as a Southampton fan and had tweeted that Fratton Park is a shit hole. Really, it’s an obsession with these folks. I have no idea how they feel in Southampton, but we can assume it isn’t forgiving. They haven’t been in the same league for years, but if they run into each other in a cup, I will suspend my usual advice and tell you to stay as far away from that derby match as you possibly can.
Although by American standards, Bournemouth and Brighton would appear to be nearby, Portsmouth fans assure me they don’t give a crap about either club.
Portsmouth has one of the most famous songs — a chant, really — in all of English football. It might also be the oldest, but I suspect the folks in Norwich would disagree.
It seems that back in the day a local club called Royal Artillery FC played their games close enough to the Guild Hall that its bells could be heard, and, in fact, alerted the referees to passing time. The fans would sing to tell the ref to blow full time, and when Royal Artillery FC met its demise, many fans transferred their allegiance — and the chimes song — to Portsmouth FC.
Play up, Pompey!
Pompey, play up!
Here it is over some club highlights:
It seems to come from the entire crowd naturally and spontaneously, like when the team earns a corner, and 20,000 of them suddenly, and all at once, belt it out. It’s extraordinary and profoundly simple. And, by the way, the Southampton fans sing, to the same tune, “Fuck off Pompey, Pompey fuck off!”
I love me an old football ground, and Fratton Park is one of the greats in that regard. It’s the only home they’ve ever had, and the two side stands date from 1925 and 1935. Everything about the South Stand, in particular, just screams Old School, especially the (mock, but who cares) Tudor facade that houses a ticket office and an entrance.
The ultras are in the west end, the 1997 Fratton Stand, which has a design of a former player on its seats; he is Jimmy Dickinson, who holds the club record 764 appearances from 1946 to 1965. That’s the second-most by one player for one club in history, by the way.
The away fans will be in the other end, the Milton, on the north side by the police command center. I’m serious.
They have been saying for years they want and need a new stadium, so please, get to Fratton Park before they go and build whatever boring atrocity they are almost certain to replace it with.