Tag Archives: Fratton Park

The History of Fratton Park

English: Entrance to Fratton Park football sta...

Much as actors can become typecast, one of the inherent risks of a career as a historian is that you end up becoming typecast in the same manner. Of course, specialising in a subject is one thing, but on the other hand, pursuing some slightly diverse fields do show flexibility, and not only that, it keeps things interesting.

With that in mind, and inspired by recent developments with Pompey, I have been giving increasing attention to the feasibility of writing a comprehensive history of Fratton Park, and Pompey’s traumatic search for a new home. I’ve always been quite interested in football stadia – not just in a technological sense, but in the context of social history too. And if you’re looking to study the history of football stadia, Fratton Park probably gives as interesting a case as any.

The plot of land off Goldsmith avenue was originally purchased in 1898, soon after the clubs foundation. In the manner of most late 19th century grounds, a pavillion housed the dressing rooms and offices, and the other three stands were open terracing. The pitch was surrounded by a quaint white picket fence. The first main stand at Fratton was in the south west corner, the origins of the famous mock tudor entrance that is still there today. At the time, the ground was bounded by houses in Carisbrooke Road and Specks Lane, but was open on the north and west sides – parts of Portsmouth were still relatively open at the time, given that urban growth had not completely taken hold. The massive increase in shipbuilding in the dockyard, and the wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-45, probably precipitated the building of more houses, which in turn hemmed in the ground. But this was certainly not unusual for the time.

In 1929 the present South Stand was built, by the famous architect Archibald Leitch, and is one of the few examples left of his work. The South Stand featured a small paddock, partly sunk below pitch level, and an upper tier housing the directors box. Sadly, the famous iron lattice work on the facade of the upper tier was covered over in the 1980’s. In 1934 the current North Stand was built, mainly by the income raised from the sale of defender Jimmy Allen. A tier of seating was placed on top of the North stand terracing, which was left largely uncovered. At some point a basic roof was placed over the Fratton End. And that is pretty much how the ground stayed for almost 50 years. In the so-called ‘boom years’ of English football, an unbelievable 51,000 packed into Fratton Park to watch an FA Cup Quarter Final with Derby County in 1949 – still a record attendance.

In the mid 1950’s, the club took the remarkably forward step of constructing one of the first pre-fabricated concrete structures in the country. The ‘old’ Fratton end – as we call it nowadays! – was a remarkable structure, and subject to quite a bit of interest in the architectural community. Unusually, the upper tier provided extra standing space, on top of the existing terraced banking. I actually attended my first football match at Fratton Park stood on the lower tier of this stand in about 1988. Sadly, the stand was condemmed shortly after due to concrete cancer. After a couple of years of dilapidation, the upper tier was taken down, leaving the ‘hump’ of the low tier as a small terrace.

With the rise of hooliganism in football, from the 1970’s onwards, the first winds of change began to blow through football stadia. Steel fences and segregation of fans were introduced. This had the effect of cutting capacity. But stadium disasters at Bradford in 1985 and Hillsborough in 1989, and the subsequent Popplewell and Taylor Reports, changed the face of football stadiums forever. Capacities were cut dramatically in the interests of safety after Bradford, and new fire escapes were introduced. But after the Hillsborough disaster capacities were cut yet further, and the steel fences were taken away. The biggest changes were motivated by introduction of all-seater stadia by 1994. With a lack of space, the club could not easily adapt Fratton to seating, and the only option was to bolt seats onto existing terracing – reducing the capacity to 15,000. Almost exactly 50 years before, the same ground had held 36,000 more people.

With the constraints of the Fratton site, the club looked at relocating to a new site at Farlington. Called Parkway, the proposal was for an exciting new stadium, similar in design to Huddersfield and Bolton’s new stadiums; a retain park, and a new train station. The plan was widely supported by most of Pompey’s fanbase and the city as a whole, but the local residents – presumably not football fans – campaigned vigorously against it. The planning application was turned down by the City Council’s planning committee, and then overturned by the full council. The application was referred to the Department of the Environment for a public inquiry, which eventually turned down the plan on the somewhat spurious basis that it would remove important grazing land for Geese. Is it possible that residents in the most affluent area of Portsmouth found an unlikely ally in these feathered migrants?

Stuck in an outdated, vintage stadium, and in financial problems, Portsmouth spent the 1990’s at Fratton Park. There was neither the will nor the financing for any kind of large scale redevelopment. Under the ownership of Terry Venables – whose name is still a swear word in these parts – the new Fratton End was built, a large single tier stand holding 4,500 seats. a roof was also put on the North Stand covering the lower tier, with the stadium having an overall capacity of 19,000. However, Venables did not put the necesarry finance in place, and the cost of these works almost bankrupted the club. But as a silver lining, the new Fratton End improved what was already a famous atmosphere. Famous nights such as a home match against Stockport in 1998, when the crowd sang continually for 90 minutes, cemented this reputation.

When Milan Mandaric bought the club out of administration in 1999, securing its medium term future, thoughts turned once again to the stadium. With the problems of relocation, the immediate plan was to rebuild a new stadium on the Fratton site, along with a retail development on the Fratton Goods Yard land that was being vacated by British Rail. Mandaric, however, dithered. He did not wish to build a large new stadium, that whilst Pompey were in the lower leagues would have swathes of empty seats. The retail development went on, leaving the football stadium behind. Meanwhile, Mandaric began looking at alternative sites, and practically every available open space in Portsmouth was mooted – from Hilsea Gasworks to Port Solent; from Tipner to King George V playing fields in Cosham; even Farlington (again!). Yet nothing happened.

When Pompey won promotion to the Premier League in 2003, Mandaric announced plans for Pompey Village – a 34,000 stadium, turned 90 degrees on the existing stadium, incorporating three new stands, and a retail and residential development. This development gained planning permission, and at one point Mandaric even demolished a wall ceremonially to mark the beginning of work. The wall was later rebuilt. Once again, Mandaric procrastinated. Nothing happened, whilst Pompey stayed in the Premier League for seven seasons, playing in one of the smallest and oldest grounds in the top flight.

Eventually Mandaric sold up to Sacha Gaydamak, without ever delivering on his promise of providing Pompey with a new home. Gaydamak did not like the Pompey Village plans, and forwarded an even more radical plan – constructing a landmark bowl (or bedpan) design on reclaimed land at The Hard. This plan, unsurprisingly, did not get off the ground, and attention shifted towards a new Stadium at land on Horsea Island in Portsmouth Harbour. Although Horsea is miles from a train station, it is close to the M275, and free from any constraints such as local residents or lack of land. However, with the clubs well documented recent problems, the Horsea plan is a distant memory and the club is fighting to survive.

It would be hard not to come to the conclusion that the lack of a large modern ground has cost Pompey dearly. With such a small capacity, and in poor facilities, it has been difficult to grow a fanbase. There are no lucrative corporate boxes, and very little commercial opportunities with a dearth of conferincing venues. A larger stadium would enable the club to cut prices, which would then encourage more to attend. Yet, Fratton Park is loved by the vast majority of Pompey fans. It plays a large part in making the club what it is, when other clubs have been transplanted into bland, soul-less bowl type meccano stadiums.

Complaints from visiting fans abound. Particularly when the Milton End didn’t have a roof. Historically, and socially, how did we go from dockies and sailors standing up on a saturday afternoon off, to cossetted fans whinging about getting wet and a lack of leg room? To what extend do these changing attitudes reflect wider society, and football’s commercialisation? Perhaps as ticket prices have gone up, we have expected more for our money. Whilst this is understandable, it has led to football – and fans – turning their back on the games heritage. I suspect, also, that we have gone soft. I can remember standing on the old open Fratton End, surrounded by weeds, with only rudimentary toilets and one solitary burger van for a couple of thousand people. And you know what? I preferred it.

Given the manner in which Portsmouth is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and its small size and island location, Horsea Island probably remains the only long term option for a new ground, alongside the option of redeveloping Fratton. The option of redeveloping Fratton, however, hinges on the possibility of resolving land ownership issues with Balram Chainrai (who holds a debenture on the ground) and Sacha Gaydamak (who owns much of the land around the stadium). Given its built up location, however, Fratton presents significant transport problems. Personally, I think that Horsea Island is probably the ‘ideal world’ option.

If a club such as Brighton can turn things around – witness their fantastic new Amex stadium at Falmer – then there is no reason not to dream that one day Pompey might not be walking out into a new home fit for such a famous club.

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The Taylor Report unpicked: the terracing debate

Fans of Borussia Dortmund support their team e...

Dortmund's Westfalen Stadion (Image via Wikipedia)

In 1989 virtually all football grounds in Britain contained a sizeable portion of terracing. In fact, terracing was so synonymous with football, that it would have been impossible, prior to 1989, to imagine football without it.

Originally earth or cinder banking, rows of railway sleepers were placed on top to give a firm footing. Some earlier stadiums had had scaffold-like stands, until a collapse at Ibrox in 1902 killed many spectators. Gradually earth was replaced by stepped concrete. The wide expanse of these concrete terraces were broken up by metal crush barriers, which prevented surges and crushing – and also gave fans something convenient to lean on! Far more fans could be packed into an expanse of terracing than the equivalent area of seating, so the advantages to the clubs was obvious – more people, bigger crowds, more gate receipts.

Terraces were particularly popular among working class fans. It became traditional for a clubs most vociferous fans to stand on the terrace behind one of the goals. Standing is pro-active, whereas sitting is passive. Some terraces were covered and some were open, but no-one was particularly bothered if they got wet – it was all part of the experience. End terraces became held with great affection by fans – the Kop at Liverpool, the Holte End at Aston Villa, the North Bank at Arsenal and the Stretford End at Manchester United for example. At Fratton Park of course we had the famous Fratton End. There was also an area of the North Stand Terrace known as the ‘boilermakers hump’, where dockyard workers would gather (back in those days going to Football was a legitimate reason for leaving the yard early!).

During the boom years immediately after the Second World War thousands would crowd onto the terraces: one had to turn up at lunchtime to get a good spot for a three O’clock kick off. Clubs even employed crowd packers to move the fans around and get as many people in as possible. Footage exists of small children being passed over the heads of the crowd down to the front to get a better view. At the time few fans travelled to away games, but those that did could travel around the ground at will, moving from one end to the other at half time.

It is strange indeed that the Taylor Report outlawed terracing, especially after Taylor had stated that terracing is ‘not intrinsincally unsafe’. Terracing did not cause Hillsborough – bad policing of terracing caused Hillsborough. Sadly, it does all support the conclusion that Taylor was given a brief by the Government to ‘sort out’ football. Part of gentrifying football was the attack on its working class roots, and the terrace and its inhabitants were the most visible target for ‘cleaning up’.

Most German Football Stadia have what are dubbed ‘safe standing’ areas. One, the Westfalenstadion at Dortmund, houses almost 30,000 behind the goal. Usually one end, or a couple of blocks in one end, are terraced. This is highly safe terracing, with wide steps, a crush barrier for every couple of rows, and a sensible capacity so fans are not jammed in. FIFA and UEFA games must be all-seater, so clubs get round this by the simple expedient of either having ‘hybrid’ terracing, or terracing that is easily converted into seating. The Olympiastadion in Munch has terracing that gives each spectator a designated spot, and there is a seat built into the crash barrier behind that can be used if necessary. Even for standing games, this is convenient for half time. The Espirit Arena in Dusseldorf has terracing, with basic seats covered with a metal panel – this panel can be easily removed by ground staff. Dusseldorf is a particularly interesting example, in that when the stadium was completed in 2004, it was completely all seater. Terracing was retro-installed in 2010, due to pressure from fans. This shows that terracing CAN be retrofitted into modern all-seater stadia.

Given the Germans penchant for efficiency and health and safety, do we really think they would have terracing if it was that unsafe? I doubt it very much. I have felt far more safe standing on terraces in Germany than I do seated in England. Terracing is much more safe than having seating, but where fans stand up throughout the game anyway. If people want to stand up, why not just have terracing anyway, but do it properly?

The terracing of 1989 and Hillsborough cannot be judged against that of 2010. The perimeter fencing, excessive capacities, barbaric pen arrangements, poor policing and stewarding, lack of turnstiles, few crush barriers, poor crowd distribution and non-existant emergency procedures are light years away from the terracing I have seen in Germany. All of the aforementioned problems can be remedied without recourse to seating.

Terracing, with a sensible capacity, plenty of crush barriers, and well managed, is perfectly safe. I doubt very much whether there is any will to re-introduce terracing in English football – not from the clubs, the football authorities or the Government. Not only because it would restore football to its working class roots, but also because clubs have spent so much converting to all-seater, few would want the additional lay-out of bringing back terracing.

Have English football fans gone soft since the introduction of all-seater stadia? All the evidence would suggest so. It would have been unthinkable, years ago, for fans to complain about noise, or the lack of legroom, or if their seats aren’t nice and comfy. It was just part of the game. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, the move from standing to seated is along the lines of conscious to comatose; from supporter to consumer.

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The Taylor report unpicked: the effect on stadia

Entrance to Fratton Park football stadium, Por...

The Entrance to Fratton Park (Image via Wikipedia)

 

Since 1989 – and the Taylor report specifically – Stadium design in English football has changed beyond recognition. Far more time, thought and money has been invested in accomodating supporters than ever before.

The earliest football stadiums in England were rather basic affairs. A main grandstand might be built to seat directors and well-off patrons, as well as dressing rooms and offices. Along the front of the main stand might run a paddock for standing spectators. Another more basic stand would run the length of the pitch on the other side, and both ends were usually of uncovered terracing. In the early days this consisted of cinders with railway sleepers dumped on top, but in latter years terracing was constructed out of concrete. Such a stadium configuration is still known around the world as the ‘English style’. Typical examples are the Estadio Alfonse Henriques at Guimaraes, the Stade Felix Bolaert at Lens, or the larger Westfalenstadion at Dortmund.

Between the turn of the century and the Taylor report there was little incentive for clubs to improve conditions. Most working class supporters were happy with their lot and not worried about having gold plated crash barriers or doileys in the toilets. The only ground improvements might be to build a bigger stand to fit in more people, to extend a terrace maybe, or perhaps to put a roof over an open terrace. But in their way, the old grounds had character, in particular those that had the old style Leitch lattice work along the front of the main stand.

The 1985 fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade Stadium led to a new impetus for ground safety. 56 people were killed on the final day of the 1984-5 league season when rubbish underneath the old wooden main stand caught fire. It is believed that a match or cigarette was dropped through a hole in the wooden floorboards, and that rubbish had for many years accumulated in the void underneath. Fire swept through the stand within seconds, a horrific spectacle that was shown on live TV. Many exits were found to be sut or locked, condeming fans to their fate. The fire took hold so quickly that when the Fire Brigade arrived four minutes after the alarm was raised, nothing could be done.

The Bradford fire led to the Popplewell Inquiry and subsequent report. Safety in stadiums was improved: wooden stands were condemmed, and fire exits were added in many places. Yet the Popplewell Report did not go far enough – many grounds still had perimeter fencing to counter pitch invasions. The stand at Valley Parade did not have fencing, but if it had, hundreds would have been killed. This should have posed a salutory ‘what if’, but instead, the Government and English football – inexplicably – fudged the issue by only looking at the risk of fire, not of other scenarios such as crushing. Remember also that Heysel took place a matter of days later. The overall safety emphasis of the Taylor Report came four years – and 96 lives – too late.

Fast forward to 1989, and the Taylor report ushered in all seater-stadia for the top and second flight divisions in English football. Taylor had originally proposed to make all football stadia all-seater, but this was later scaled back by the Government. To aid building work the Government waived a proportion of VAT on Football Pools, and this was ploughed into stadium work via the Football Trust. Suddenly clubs HAD to act and were forced out of their laissez-faire malaise.

Taylor ordered that the capacity of all terraces should be instantly cut by 15%. This immediately cut into the capacity of most stadiums, in particular large grounds with big terraced ends. The Capacity of Portsmouth’s Fratton Park fell from 36,000 to 26,000 overnight. In 1949 the same ground had held 51,000 people, with exactly the same stands – such was the effect of successive legislation following first the 1985 Bradford fire and then Hillsborough.

Seats take up far more room in a stadium than a terrace. Therefore, the prospect of simply bolting seats onto an old terraced Kop was an inefficient and unlikely prospect. The bank would need re-profiling, and sightlines would not be ideal. Faced with the prospect of losing huge swathes of spectators – and income – clubs were faced with no alternative but to either radically redesign their grounds, or look at building completely new stadiums altogether. A boom in Sky TV money also made building work more feasible. Between 1991 and 1997 a total of £507.8m was spent on football stadiums – £371.3m from the clubs, and £136.5m from the Football Trust.

Yet amidst all the talk about relocation, Scarborough moved to the new Glandford Park in 1988 – the first English club to build a new stadium since 1955. Since then, many clubs have moved grounds – Sunderland, Middlesborough, Stoke, Manchester City, Wigan, Arsenal, Bolton, Hull, Reading, Derby, Southampton, Leicester, Chesterfield, Oxford, Coventry, Cardiff, Swansea, Millwall, Huddersfield and Doncaster to name but a handful.

Although plenty of money has been spent on English stadiums, in my opinion they are on the whole disappointing. Compare the cheap identikit meccano stadiums of St Marys, the Riverside, the Walkers Stadium and Pride Park with Munich’s Allianz Arena, Arnhem’s Gelredome or any of the stadiums designed for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Of new English stadiums perhaps Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium warrants a mention, as does Old Trafford – simply for the way in which it has been built to a logical all-round plan rather than having different stands constructed haphazardly on each side. But on the whole, most English football stadia are lazily designed and characterless. They could have been designed by a 5-year old on the back of a fag packet.

I suspect one of the major problems that has inhibited stadium architecture in Britain is the difficulty of long-term planning. Unlike many parts of Europe Football Clubs in England tend to own their own stadiums, unlike in Germany, for example, where many stadiums are owned by the municipal authorities. Thus if the club is strapped for cash it cannot be bothered to invest in the stadium, and even if the club has funds, it is likely to try and get away with spending as little as it can get away with. Any attempts to rebuild or relocate stadiums have to go through planning permission with the local council, which can take years or legal wrangling, consultation, and struggling with narrow-minded NIMBY’s. Ambitious and wealthy owners are sometimes able to force things through.

Lets take a look at the example of my local team, Portsmouth. 1989 found Pompey playing at the inner-city Fratton Park, hemmed in on four sides by houses and a rail goods yard. The main south stand dated from 1929, the North Stand from 1934 and the Fratton and Milton Ends were basic open terraces. The capacity fell from 36,000 in 1989 to 26,000 after Hillsborough, and then – due to a high level of terracing – just over 10,000 in 1994. For a club that was in the second tier at the time this was unacceptable.

Plans were made to move to a purpose built 22,000 seater stadium at Farlington, until the plan was scuppered by a few local residents and geese. With a new apathetic owner, the club remained at Fratton. Then Terry Venables took over and built a new all-seater Fratton End, raising the capacity to 20,000. The only problem was, that the club did not actually have the money to build the new stand, and almost went bust as a result. The rest of the ground and its facilties were essentially the same as in 1939.

When Milan Mandaric took over various plans were advanced to first build on Fratton Goods Yard, then rotate the stadium by 90 degrees (with an odd design that envisaged keeping the 1929 vintage south stand), then move to Hilsea Gasworks, King George V playing fields and a host of other sites. Lots of ideas, but no real work. Once Sacha Gaydamak took over, a plan was announced to build on reclaimed land at the Hard (this time an imaginative design by the architects behind the Allianz Arena), and when this was ruled out, a more realistic plan was made to build on Horsea Island. This plan, however, was dropped when Gaydamak lost interest (and his daddy pulled the plug on his millions), leaving Pompey right back where they started.

That said, there is something romantic about Fratton Park and its inner city location. Walking to the ground from Goldsmith Avenue is a stirring experience, that is somehow lost in the multitude of out-of-town stadiums nowadays. True the facilities are not great, but does that really matter to those of us who used to stand on the terraces? Its football, not the opera. And the old mock-Tudor house that greets visitors in Frogmore Road is still a sight to behold. There are plenty of pubs in the local area, the railway station is a ten minute walk, and the city centre is not far away. Would this matchday experience be anything like the same if the ground was housed on an industrial estate?

But if we must have new stadiums, why do they have to be soul-less constructions of mecanno and prefabricated concrete? A stadium with landmark design and with a character all of its own is more likely to engender identity, loyalty and pride. For example the ‘lifeboat’ design of the Allianz Arena, the new Wembley Arch or the old Munich Olympiastadion’s eyecatching perspex roof.

There has been no disaster in any English football ground since 1989. No lives have been lost, but what about the soul of English football, and the character of English Football Stadia?

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