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.