Fratton Park

The clouds are gathering over Pompey. Well, they've gathered, really.

Those with a passing interest in football – that’s the real football, I mean, where the foot contacts the ball, and the use of hands is restricted to two players out of 22 on the park – will have noticed that Portsmouth FC, traditional rivals of my team – Southampton FC – are broke.

Again.

This time for not paying their taxes. Not paying their taxes because presumably they were too busy paying inflated transfer fees and wages, so they could maintain an artificially exalted position in English football. (By artificially exalted, I mean, of course, anywhere higher than Southampton.) And now, they have to find a buyer, or they risk going really, truly, totally, finally broke, which I mean the club will cease to exist and their ground will be sold off for affordable housing or an ice-skating rink.

Which is where Southampton were a few years ago – within two days of vanishing altogether – until a kindly Swiss billionaire stepped into to save us. At the time, may Portsmouth fans were gleefully awaiting our permanent demise with glee that would make the witches in Macbeth toiling over their hubbling bubbling cauldron seem like cheerful old grannies on a seaside excursion. Ah well. que sera sera. Now it’s a case of biter, bit.

And needless to say, many Saints supporters are now cackling maniacally over the possible vanishing of our South Coast rivals, and the grinding of the faces of their fans into the blasted sands of a building site where Fratton Park, their antiquated home ground, used to be.

And yes. It needs saying. Without a word of a lie, the worst of the Pompey fans are awful. But then again, so are the worst of ours.

I suspect Pompey has more dreadful zombie fans than we do because it has always struck me as a rougher, tougher area generally. In its built form it is uglier than Southampton (and that’s saying something, after the Nazis demolished great swathes of both cities with indiscriminate bombing, and what arose in place of charming medieval homes and churches was mile after mile of disgusting concrete tower blocks and squat, low-rise concrete stores) and as far as I know Portsmouth has worse employment and more crime, and I have always found the residents to have a sizeable chip on their shoulder accordingly.

But no, for all that, I don’t want to see our nearest rivals disappear, for the sake of their real fans.

Sure, I’d be happy if they were in what we used to call Division Four, before Division One was re-named the Premiership and Division Two became the Championship, so good old Division Four was christened something called League Two – and I’d be glad for them to be mid table, too, with crowds of no more than 5,000 for a few seasons, to teach them some manners after their hubris in recent years.

And yes, I have experienced some horrid times with Pompey supporters, but then honestly so I have with so-called supporters from Tottenham, Leeds, Chelsea, Millwall, and others.

In the good old bad old days of the 70s and early 80s, it was quite common to see Bedford Place, a harmless little thoroughfare from Southampton Central Station up to the Saints home ground, which was called the Dell, boarded up from top to bottom on match days, otherwise every window would be smashed in, and the mass of fans would prevent any effective policing of the chaos at all.

When I went to the Dell to see us beat Man City once their fans were lobbing darts at random into the toilet queue I was in. Well, I think it was Man City. But it could have been any one of an enormous variety of clubs that still produced magic on the pitch while their fans behaved like crazed mental institution inmates on the terraces. Ah yes, the stepped concrete terraces with their murderous metal-pipe leaning posts, which could crush the life out of you as ten thousand fellow fans tumbled down the terraces behind you and towards the pitch if you weren’t smart enough to get out of the way, and which would ring with the chant “We’re going to have a riot!” “We’re going to have a riot!” And so we often did, although I never threw any punches myself. I was too busy running away, and I say that with no shame whatsoever. If you have never been in the middle of a pitched battle with thousands of young males armed with boots, knives, lumps of wood, metal bars, broken glasses and God knows what else then you can’t really comment on my instinct for self-preservation. I wouldn’t have enjoyed being at the Battle of Floddon much, either, and that was what it was like.

But despite having often been on the receiving end of abuse from fans of all clubs, and often brutally from those from Pompey, really hating people you don’t even know just for supporting another football club is sociopathic nonsense, and doesn’t make the world a better place.

That does not mean I have to like them, much.

And yes, I do love Southampton, because the most important years of the early part of my life were spent there, and I fell in love with the dirty, concrete clad mess of a place.

I understand its traditions, its history, the shared sufferings and joys of its people, and over much more than just football. For me, Southampton will always be uniquely my home, wherever I live. It was where I learned to love, whoever I chose to, and by my choice, and not because I was told to.

It was where I learned to think, and criticise, and analyse, and make my own mind up on the great issues of our lives. In short, this little red smudge on the map of docks and pubs and parks and semi-detached houses which Hitler tried to erase was where I turned from a child to a man, and then a particular type of man, a big part of which was to walk cheerfully to the Dell and squeeze into that tiny ground, on cold winter nights when the frost still sat on the pitch and the air was white with the breath of my fellow supporters and blue with their chants, and on one glorious day in May of 1976, it was where I wandered the streets of Above Bar with an unknown girl on my arm, celebrating the impossible toppling of Man United in the FA Cup Final.

And I fell in love – not with the girl, who I recall was named Sue, but who wanted nothing to do with me the next day after sticking her tongue down my throat most of that night – ah, the follies of youth – but with an idea of a place, with the very essence of a place, a place of civility, and memories, and a curious accent on the voices of its citizens, which would make anyone laugh, and should.

And the essence of Southampton and its immediate environs runs through my veins as surely as my blood still falteringly manages to do so, and it always will.

It pains me to say it, somewhat, but I am sure that’s just as true of people from Portsmouth too. In 1917, my grandfather received the DSC (one step down from a VC) for using his trawler nets to dredge Portsmouth Harbour of contact mines dropped by Zeppelins … in the second war my father sailed in and out of there regularly on the convoys that kept Britain alive in 1940 and 41, which is simply a reminder that what unites us is always greater than what divides us, even with Portsmouth.

And this is the only time that I ever have, or ever will, spell the name of that benighted place with all the letters typed out correctly. From here on, it will be back to Pomp*y, or Portsmou*h. And I will continue to regale all and sundry with the fact that the name of their hideous ground is a perfect anagram of “Krap, Nottarf”, and sing the songs of yesteryear about flying over said ground with the wings of a sparrow and the arse of a crow, and shitting on the bastards below. And when they lose, and we win, I shall be Happier than a Happy Person in Happy Town on International Lets Be Irrationally Happy Day.

But I don’t really want them to disappear, for the sake of the die-hards, the ironed-ons, the kids with tears in their eyes, and the grandads sitting next to them. Because I know they can’t help it either.

They’re hooked, for life, just like me. And we addicts should always support one another, in extremis, at least.

Comments
  1. Andrew Metcalfe says:

    Unfortunately, in this day and age, there are no force-shields to ward against Her Majesty’s Purse or against mismanagement, or against delusions of grandeur. You know the sort of thing… we’ll spend 180m quid (or whatever) on latter-day Peles and we’ll win the Champions’ League, sell lots of shirts, attract wholesome sponsors, like green-nuclearenergy.com and all will be well. It’s a bit sad but it’s a reality we’ll all have to deal with until the big implosion, when they’ll have to re-invent the structure.

    Real fans, though, even survive the dissolution of the club.

    Witness Wimbledon. Arguably a bigger name than Portsmouth. Crazy Gang. All that. Suddenly, no club. Well, Milton Keynes Dons, actually. Sod that, said a significant number of fans. AFC Wimbledon is born and the rest, I admit, is merely a precursor to history… but it’s a start. They’ve risen from non-league to League 2 and are on their way.

    I wish Portsmouth well… but if the worst happens, real fans will find a way to resurrect the club they love. Oh, and on Southampton… with West Ham just above them and Birmingham breathing down their necks, I looked at the fixtures for the rest of the year. Their run in is far better than their rivals. They’re going up… again. The Premier League doesn’t really look right without Southampton anyway.

    Like

    • Wise words, Andrew. Funnily enough, a good mate of mine was involved with the very start of AFC Wombles, giving them free accounting and financial advice and services and so on, and I happened to be in Wimbledon at the time, and the level of rage at what had been done to their club was very real – I agree, their story is most encouraging.

      And as for the Premiership, yes, I agree – despite my obvious bias – that is is uber-strange Saints not being there, after 27 years in the top flight before their crash, and really, they are the biggest team south of London and the competition is less without them. As to whether we will go up this year, I do agree our run in looks easier, but this is Southampton we’re talking about. I won’t celebrate until they’re up. As someone wisely remarked, “I can handle the despair, it’s the hope that really gets me.”

      Great to hear from you, mate, hope you’re well.

      Like

  2. Paul Brixey says:

    Well that certainly brought back memories but I’m surprised that you were arm in arm with a young girl that night as I had other things on my mind having returned from Wembley with my dad. To be honest I thought the celebrations after the semi final were better……from what I can remember of it.

    Like

  3. Simon ondaatje says:

    Stephen, O-O!

    Like

What do YOU think? That's what matters. Please comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s