As much as I love seeing soccer games in England, and as much as I love travel, and visiting the old stadiums, what I really love is a club whose supporters stick with it, no matter what. For all these reasons, I confess to admiring the heck out of Portsmouth FC.
They’ve played at Fratton Park since their founding in 1898, and the only truly impressive thing they did was win the FA Cup in 2008, while also playing in the Premier League. Since then, they’ve gone broke, almost gone out of business, had to be purchased by the fans, dropped down to League Two, been sold again, and just now made it back to League One.
And yet, when I rolled into town to see them in September 2017, for a game against Fleetwood Town, a tiny club hundreds of miles away, it never occurred to me that tickets would be anything but easy.
Alas, when I arrived at the ticket office — which is in a mock Tudor facade on the 1925 South Stand — I was told, first, that to purchase for today I needed to cut through that alley there. When I got there, they said all they had left for today’s game is in the Milton End, next to the away supporters.
This combination of old — Tudor facade? — and quaint — down the alley? — and support — you almost sold out for Fleetwood Town? — had me in fine spirits as I joined the throngs of friendly people queuing up in the rain to enter the Milton End. To my left was the ground, oozing character and history and coziness; to my right was a row of back gardens for houses, barely 50 feet from the top row of Fratton Park’s seats.
I took my seat and found myself gazing into the 19th Century, or so it felt. They just don’t make stadiums this way anymore. The surroundings made it seem slightly odd when, just before the teams came out, the PA system was playing “Boogie Wonderland.” I can’t make out the other song that played as the teams came out:
Order was restored, though, when the teams actually arrived and “Portsmouth,” a kind of English folk song, blared out and the fans all clapped along, even if not in the complicated beat of the song. This version, by Mike Oldfield, was remade for Portsmouth’s FA Cup win in 2009 — teams used to always have an “FA Cup song” — and they’ve been playing it ever since.
It wasn’t long before I heard the fabled “Play up, Pompey” chant to the tune of the Westminster bells, along with the more common sounds of a football game breaking out: fans clapping at plays well done, mocking opponents’ miscues with “HAAAAYY,” screaming “gu-wan!” whenever Pompey looked to break, groaning when it fell apart, and blasting instructions at everyone on the pitch.
Occasionally, things would settle down — there wasn’t much going on early in the game — and some bloke in the back would bellow out a “Blue AR-my!” Others would join in, if the mood struck. Mostly, though, the first half was spent just watching some football on a sunny(ish) day on the South Coast.
Portsmouth scored on a header in front of the Fratton End and led, 1-0, at the half. Everybody went for a beer or a snack, and I engaged in my usual halftime tradition of trying to get the crappy UK data service to tell me the bloody scores from around the country. Jesus.
Right, so early in the second half Fleetwood sent in a ball from the left, a man headed it back in, and even as their striker wound up to hit it, somebody near me yelled, “Oh, fuck off!” I’ll never know: Did he think the striker was fooling himself, or has he seen enough of this to know that ball was about to arrow to the far upper corner and level things up? It was a cracking goal, as they say, and my basic neutrality almost came out in the form of a gasp, or dare I say some other expression of admiration which my neighbors would not have appreciated.
Another sign of a great fanbase: Pompey fans, instead of getting down or turning on their team after the equalizer, instead roared them back, easily drowning out the traveling Cod Army. I’m serious: Cod Army, Trawlermen and Fiserhmen are the various nicknames for Fleetwood Town. I must go there.
Not that drowning the visitors out was hard to do, as there were about 65 of them in attendance. In their defense, it’s a five-hour drive, which for English people is like going to Budapest or something. They think driving two hours to a game is admirable; in the States, we call that a local derby! I am always assuming that teams, say, an hour away from each other must have a real rivalry, and English people look at me like I’m nuts.
The next three goals were all scored right in front me, and by the hosts. First there was a free header at the far post on a corner, then the same lad got free down the right and, I would have sworn on my Timbers cap, had gone too far. He blasted it from maybe five feet off the end line, with the keeper at his post, and when the ball re-materialized in the net on the opposite post, I was briefly more confused than impressed or amazed. How on Earth did he do that?
I took a picture of the divot he left, to show how close to the line he was:
For Pompey’s fourth, their main striker, who was wearing a bandage form an earlier bloody nose, had it out on the left wing, and as he looked up towards the goal, I actually said out loud, “Oh, why not,” and by the time I was done saying it, he had launched one that the keeper jumped … let’s say towards, as opposed to anywhere near … then it hit the far post and went in! Unbelievable goal again. He trotted over to the South Stand, blowing kisses, and from there, Pompey just cruised on in, 4-1 winners.
Here are the highlights, complete with Portsmouth announcers:
A couple of other notes: One is that the Portsmouth fans kept booing #38 for Fleetwood, and I assumed he had done something that I missed, like kick a Pompey player without reason. Then I recalled that they regularly boo former Southampton players. So I looked him up online: He is Baily Cargill, on loan from Bournemouth. I thought that might explain the boos, but really, who hates Bournemouth? It’s like hating Tulane or something.
Then I read his entry on Wikipedia, and there it was, in the first sentence: “Born in Winchester, England, Cargill grew up as a Southampton fan and even had a season ticket for the club.” This rivalry is really nuts.
Speaking of rivalries being nuts, I did enjoy Fleetwood’s player named Dempsey getting sent off late in the game. I even mumbled a “Fuck off, Dempsey,” which made me feel a little sentimental for the Cascadia Derby.
As we all headed out, one final English tradition settled in: It started to rain. And I don’t mean pissing, I mean thunder and wind and, like, coastal rain. It’s a whole different thing. Out in the streets, nobody cared. They live here, after all (and I’m used to it from Portland), and some of them entertained themselves by singing, “We’re wet, but we won, 4-1”
And with that, the Blue Army fanned out into the pubs and onto the buses and trains, the Cod Army sulked onto their club coach headed north, and I went back to check out that chippie on the pier across from my hotel. I now had 59 games under my belt, at 47 different clubs, since 2011. And in the morning, I would be off to London.