BY TOM EVANS
I started watching football the year the game changed forever: 1992 – the birth of the Premier League. The Hillsborough disaster and Sky Sports had changed everything and teams like Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal would soon become global brands, with the game itself becoming merely an adjunct to the commercial concerns of multinational sponsors and shareholders. Those changes would eventually come to my club, Portsmouth, and manifest themselves in the worst ways possible, but none of that was in evidence on Goldsmith Avenue on an unseasonably cold and blustery Saturday afternoon in August 1992.
We had made it to the FA Cup semi-final the previous season, holding Liverpool to a draw at Highbury and I’d been a 10-year old rapt in the spectacle on TV. My Dad had taken me to a screening of the replay in the Guildhall and I’d wept in horror as Martin Kuhl, Warren Neil and John Beresford all failed to convert. A drunk old boy sitting next to me (not my Dad) who had been belting out the Pompey Chimes all the way through the match, put an avuncular hand on my shoulder and told me to get used to the pain. From that moment, I was hooked, losing all interest in anything else. School work, cricket, rugby, all relegated to the scrap heap. What else in life could make you feel like this? So much excitement, happiness and misery, all wrapped up in 90 minutes of glorious frenetic beauty. That summer was football, football, football; Portsmouth, Portsmouth, Portsmouth.
By the start on the following season my Dad had convinced my Mum that it was ok for him to take me to Fratton Park and that I wouldn’t be corrupted forever by the language or caught up in a terrace scrap. Having worked at the London Hospital in Whitechapel in the late 1970s and seen the results of the violence of West Ham firms like the ICF at Upton Park, it’s hardly surprising that she was a bit cautious about me going to the match. Anyway, she finally relented, and we were off, my Dad and me, on a journey that would take us from the highest highs (beating league leaders Newcastle United 2-0 at home) to the lowest lows (ignominious play-off defeat to Leicester City) in what was to be a phenomenal season for Pompey. That first game together was Barnsley at home.
The thing that stays in my mind most clearly from that day is the walk from the car to the ground. It never changed. We’d park in Winston Churchill Avenue in Somerstown and walk from there past the Bridge Shopping Centre and along the railway to Goldsmith Avenue. You had to go through an underpass and there was a giant piece of graffiti on the wall that caught my eye, ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if the hash don’t get ya, the smack’s a must’. Without a clue what it meant, I jumped up to touch the roof of the underpass; one of those weird football superstitions which has stuck with me ever since. Once on Goldsmith Avenue, for a posh boy like me, it was like entering a different world. Dirty, scary, vibrant and alive. You had the Bridge Caffe (sic), next to the Cue Ball Billiards and Snooker Club and Bunny’s Car Breakers, with its beaten-up orange Mini on the roof of the office, then the Talbot Pub with fans streaming in and out, and boys spilling out of the Station onto the main road; 6:57 lads got up in their Stone Island and Acquascutum gear who looked both glamorous and terrifying all at once. Then the smell of fried onions would hit you and after Bishops Print Works you’d start hearing the programme sellers on Frogmore Road, ‘Pompey Programmes, Official Programmes’, always said in a clipped and slightly angry tone.
Because we didn’t know what we were doing for that first match, we ended up in the atmosphere-devoid Upper South Stand around the 18-yard line, towards the Fratton End. That was the last time that would happen, and the wide open, single tier terrace of the Fratton End would from then on be our home. We won 1-0 with Guy Whittingham scoring one of his 42 league goals for the season. His pairing with Paul Walsh that year cemented for all time my obsession with great number 9/10 partnerships, of which they were without question one; a perfect symbiosis of Walsh’s wily trickery, skill and vision, tied to Whittingham’s clinical, metronomic efficiency in front of goal.
After that first home win, the obsession grew for both of us. My Dad had been a Fulham fan as a kid, but never really committed to it. We moved from London to the south coast when I was 7. He got a job working for the council in Portsmouth and developed an affection for what was then a pretty grim city that would extend to a re-birth of his love for football. Between then and Christmas we saw every home game, with only one drawn (Notts County) and one lost (West Ham, who my Mum still supported). I got used to going to Fratton Park, and I got used to seeing Pompey win. Ridiculous as it sounds, the Fratton End started to feel like it belonged to me and my Dad. We always stood in the same place. Just to the right of the goal, about halfway up, and always surrounded by the same old faces. I was passionate, loud, and being 11, annoying, but the blokes around us were always kind and humored my idiotic outbursts, always calling me ‘Nipper’ or ‘Nip’. My vocabulary expanded exponentially and the nastiest of Pompey’s anti-Saints chants has long remained my favourite: ‘My old man said be a Scummer fan, I said F*CK OFF, BOLLOCKS, you’re a C*NT’. I could never sing along to it in front of my old man, without risking a whack on the back of the head, but it used to whirl around my mind as we walked away from matches, making me chuckle away to myself.
The back-pass rule had come in that season and I remember a golden moment when Alan Knight, Pompey’s talismanic No. 1, was about to pick up a back-pass in his area, and in one voice the Fratton End screamed ‘DON’T PICK IT UP!’. He hoofed it 60 yards up the park and turned to us with a huge grin and a thumbs up. It all feels so parochial and innocent now, but that is exactly what football was like back then.
The season ended in disappointment with Pompey finishing 3rd, level on points (88) with West Ham who took the second automatic promotion place behind Newcastle. Our performance against Leicester in the play-offs was not good enough and Swindon Town eventually went up, having finished 12 points behind us in 5th place. Despite what to my 11-year old mind was a criminal injustice, one thing was for sure: a love had been born that would burn this bright forever. I was Portsmouth till I die and nothing was ever going to change that.
And for the next 10 seasons it was true. Pompey remained a 1st Division side and we had some brushes with glory (2-2 away to Manchester United in the 5th round of the 1994 League Cup), and a glimpse towards promotion (7th in 1996-97), but for most of the 1990s Pompey struggled, involved in relegation battles every season from 1997-98 to 2001-02. When you survive them, relegation battles can be exciting, but they are mostly painful affairs that haunt you with anxiety for months after. That old drunk fella was right. It looked like all that early success that we witnessed was just a brief candle. Pain was the thing that would endure.
Then came the 2002-03 season; one that would act as a remarkable mirror to that which had gone a decade before. By this point I was in my last year at university in Swansea and going to the match became a logistical challenge. I attended more away games than home that season, but the spread of the internet meant that even in my flat in South Wales, I could still listen to games on Radio Solent, along with the philosophical musings of ex-Pompey pundit, Paul Hardiman.
Though in my early 20s, every home game that I did attend was always with my Dad. I’d noticed a change in him that year. He was becoming jumpier, especially at the match. I remember someone bumping into him before one extremely cold and wet game against Leicester at home, and he got really angry, inexplicably. He also couldn’t keep his right hand still, and he sometimes seemed to walk with a limp. I didn’t think too much about it and just put it down to him getting older. My naivety was sadly misplaced though and in the early spring of 2003, he told me and my sister that he had Parkinson’s. The blow was a crushing one, but we saw out the rest of that season together in awe as Pompey wiped the floor with the division to the bouncing Fratton End chorus of the Pompey Chimes, ‘Top of the League’ and ‘Harry and Jim’s Blue and White Army’.
The parallels with the 1992-93 season were myriad. Jim Smith was back on the coaching staff; Leicester were a thorn in our side; and a lone striker, Svetoslav Todorov, was totemic up front, finishing as the league’s top scorer with 26 goals. I’d gone from being a little boy to a man, but me and my Dad were once again watching on from the Fratton End as Portsmouth kept on winning and winning and winning.
For any supporter of a club like Portsmouth, that felt like the pinnacle. The Holy Grail. Premier League football. My club in the biggest, richest, most exciting league in the world. I remember thinking that it can’t get any better than this. And after all this time, it still breaks my heart that for me at least, I was right. That summer marked the beginning of the fall, the rapid descent of my Dad’s health and of my love for the football club that had defined my youth.
I left university to join the Navy and, ironically, was stationed away from Portsmouth almost immediately, spending the next 13 years in the West Country and London. My Dad developed dementia which, combined with his Parkinson’s, crippled him as a person with agonising speed. Work made me miss the FA Cup run in 2008, and though I danced around the Wardroom after the final, I couldn’t help feeling detached from what should have been a viscerally magical moment. Dad and me only saw one game together with Portsmouth as a Premier League side. I managed to get two free tickets to Manchester City at home from the gym in HMS Collingwood where I was on a course in 2009. I made the stupid and selfish decision to take him, naively assuming that he’d manage alright in the stands. It was a miserable experience for both of us, and though he smiled as soon as he heard the Pompey Chimes ring out, I knew that we could never go to a match together again. Incredibly, we beat City 2-0, but the result was meaningless in the face of my Dad struggling in pain to move out of his seat and freezing on the steps in a moment of panic after the final whistle, with hundreds of people crowding in behind us.
The next day, I drove back to Devonport and had to stop the car somewhere on the A35. Looking out towards the Dorset coast, as a 28-year old man, I broke down and cried my eyes out. What had begun as the most innocent of love affairs, surviving years of struggle, then of neglect, had died. I couldn’t face the idea of Fratton Park without my Dad, and though I wouldn’t admit to it there and then, I had made a subconscious decision that I would never go back.
That was almost ten years ago. A decade in which the club I had once loved more than anything else in the world almost vanished from existence; in which the avarice and greed of the football business almost tore a hole straight through the heart of a community; but in which the courage, vision and audacity of a group of fans brought that club, teetering on the brink, back to life. I watched all of this happen from a distance. I still cared. It still hurt me to see. But the connection had gone.
It got to the point with my Dad that conversation became impossible. Talking about football with him was as natural to me as breathing in and out, but I’d lost all of that to his illness. The mates I’d had at school who were Pompey fans had drifted away, and I realised it just wasn’t any longer a part of my life. I still followed football, delighting in the growing enlightenment of how the game could be played and the tactical awareness that seemed to be infusing the English game, and I still played it at work. But it became an almost academic interest. Like viewing art through a text book.
It might seem like this is just the whining excuse of a fair-weather supporter, and it’s true that my support waned as the club’s fortunes suffered. In fact, it was remarkable how the decline of the club took place in direct parallel with the decline in my Dad’s health. But my support was so inextricably linked to my football relationship with my father that when that went, Pompey went too. To many fans that will seem inexplicable, and perhaps it is to me as well, but if there’s one thing that all football supporters should recognise, it is that sometimes our heads and our hearts can be wholly divorced from one another.
Despite all the pain and struggle of seeing my Dad disappear as the person he was, and of my Mum having to cope with it day by day, the last decade hasn’t been completely awful. I have a son now and, for the first time in my career, work has finally taken me back to Portsmouth. I’m deployed overseas at the moment, and I haven’t seen him in almost four months, but in October I’ll take my lad to his first Pompey game. We’ll have the same walk to the ground, and I’ll lift him up to touch the roof of the underpass. We’ll start off in the Family Enclosure, a concept that we were unaware of in 1992, but which is sited just below the South Stand Upper Tier where I saw Guy Whittingham score that first goal. One day we’ll move back onto the Fratton End if he likes it.
Will it be the same? Of course it won’t be the same. For a start, Goldsmith Avenue is unrecognisable now. There’s a retail park with a giant warehouse-sized B&Q behind the Fratton End; the Talbot’s shut down, and a new block of flats has gone up where once there was Bunny’s, the Cue Ball Club and the Bridge Caffe. The only thing I can hope is that I can give to my boy what my Dad gave to me. A couple of years ago, the Navy ran an advertising campaign: ‘Made in the Royal Navy’. To an extent, that’s true for all sailors, but through all the heart-ache and pain, I can definitely say that it was the Fratton End that made me. It gave me a connection with my father that is beyond describing and I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
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