I should have expected it. Two clubs, positioned at 86 and 91 in the rankings, terrified of making the drop into non-league football. Portsmouth and Torquay. The home side, reeling after three relegations in four years, the visitors looking like they might become something of a yo-yo club. Welcome to Fratton Park, “owned by Pompey fans”.
Traditional football fans can’t help but like the place. It’s an old-fashioned ground with huge floodlights – the sort that help you navigate a city like Portsmouth. Just what the locals – Pompey have neighbours as close as one door away from the Fratton Park entrance – think about having a floodlight almost in their back garden is anyone’s guess. On night matches, there’s probably no need for a living room light. Life in Frogmore Road must be quite illuminating!
Portsmouth’s recent history has been a nightmare. Twice in administration, almost 30 points deducted, those three relegations and a financial crisis that saw the club stare into the abyss. Then last year, the club was taken over by the Portsmouth Supporters Trust. While this means that the future is in their own hands, it may also highlight the massive financial limitations such a scheme will have in the age of oligarchs and oilmen. It may be more suited to non-league than the big time. But at least they are alive.
But not kicking [balls into nets]. Portsmouth are a “fallen angel” if ever there was one in football. It’s hard to believe that they won the FA Cup as recently as 2008 and reached the final two years later, the start of their steep decline. Their best days were long ago, two league championships in 1949 and 1950, a FA Cup win in 1939. In some ways it was appropriate that a city that gave so much to the war effort between 1939 and 1945 should come to prominence in the post-war years.
There’s so much about Fratton Park that reflects the social history of the game. For a start, it has a classic Archibald Leitch stand. There’s always a nice atmosphere about these stands, which have gradually disappeared over the years.
Then there’s little things like the Naval Cadet walking round the ground with the placard of a smiling sailor and the demand, “play up Pompey”. Today, however, the inevitable bear or similar animal with an over-sized head accompanies the sailor boy. Personally, I dislike any attempt to Disneyfy club mascots. Portsmouth’s famous chant, “Play up Pompey, Pompey play up”, still prevails at Fratton Park.
I think Pompey have some great fans – 15,000 every game in League Two – and they really do get behind their team. They’ve been through a lot over the years and their current downward spiral has prompted incredible loyalty.
No trip to Fratton Park would be complete without picking out the most famous Pompey fan of all, John Westwood, or to use his full name, John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood. Bedecked in his trademark stove pipe hat, blue wig and 60-plus tattoos, Westwood is comparable to a Dickensian character. Over the years, I have seen him at a number of Portsmouth games and always wondered. I still do.
I was trying to spot him before the game, but just before kick-off he arrived. His half-naked body covered in artworks illustrating his love for Pompey. There was some slight commotion as he moved into place with a couple of willing apprentices. As he moved among his people, Westwood, armed with his trademark handbell and trumpet, started to cavort to the drumbeat.
They didn’t stop. Westwood rang his bell in time with the drums, chanting throughout the game. It was fascinating to watch, certainly better than the quality of football on offer. Interestingly, quite a few people seemed to be watching the fans rather than the game.
Who could blame them? Portsmouth and Torquay looked every bit League Two strugglers. Portsmouth’s form going into the game was not good, although they were unbeaten in four games, three of which were drawn. In their previous game, they won 1-0 at Wycombe Wanderers. Torquay, meanwhile, had lost 1-0 at Oxford United but away from home their record wasn’t too bad.
The highlight of the first 20 minutes was an incident involving the referee, Dean Whitestone, who got in the way of a good Pompey mood. He held his hand up to acknowledge his error, but that didn’t stop the home crowd from giving him a torrent of abuse.
Torquay, who brought quite a few fans with them, took the lead in the 27th minute, Billy Bodin (son of former Swindon player Paul), fired home at the far post after the Pompey defence had failed to clear a cross from Joss Labadie.
Portsmouth had a good chance just before the interval through Ricky Holmes but as they walked off the pitch, the home crowd was expressing its disapproval of what they had seen.
Portsmouth played a little better in the second half, but they didn’t have the necessary thrust up front. Late in the game, though, Ben Chorley and Labadie both had the opportunity to restore parity. The score ended 1-0 to Torquay, giving the visitors some hope they can climb away from relegation. For Portsmouth, this was a reminder that they are too close for comfort. Pompey are three points ahead of the clubs currently in a relegation spot. They really will have to “Play up” soon, or the unthinkable will happen.