Boxing Day Football: A Pilgrimage to an Icon

The iconic Pompey crest proudly affixed to the Fratton Park security gate. (Photo: Stadiafile) The iconic Pompey crest proudly affixed to the Fratton Park security gate. (Photo: Stadiafile)

Home of Portsmouth Football Club
Capacity: 21,000
Portsmouth, UK, 1898

Fratton Park is one of the few UK stadiums left designed by renowned Scottish stadium architect Archibald Leitch. Unlike his work at White Hart Lane or Villa Park, which has been covered by renovations over the years, if you squint, Fratton Park looks largely as it did when first built over 100 years ago. Leitch’s work was primarily on the South Stand and it is definitely the highlight of a stadium that, due to neglect by a number of different ownership groups, has sadly fallen into disrepair. Despite its shabby state, as a stadiafile, visiting Fratton Park has long been on my list and was a welcome way to spend Boxing Day afternoon on England’s south coast.

Fratton Park floodlights guide us past Milton Cemetary.
Fratton Park floodlights guide us past Milton Cemetery. (Photo: Stadiafile)

Portsmouth is the UK’s only island city and its 200,000 residents are densely packed in. Fratton Park is nestled within a residential neighborhood on its south and east sides and open to an industrial estate to its north and west.  Despite its iconic status in the world of British football – it hosted matches during the 1948 Summer Olympics, was the first British stadium with floodlights and was for many years the largest stadium on the south coast – there is not much to Fratton Park.  Perhaps a recent visit to Brooklyn’s shape-y Barclays Center left me wanting more “architecture” at Fratton Park, but other than the hulking Fratton End that looms on the edge of the fan parking lot and the original mock Tudor pavilion from 1898 on the stadium’s southwest side, Fratton Park cuts a rather inconspicuous profile on the Portsmouth skyline. 

Houses on Carisbrooke Road back onto Fratton Park.
Houses on Carisbrooke Road back onto Fratton Park. (Photo: Stadiafile)

Fratton Railway Station is a ten-minute walk east of the ground but my party ditched our car on a residential street a mile east, a brisk if wet half hour walk to the Park. Approaching the venerable facility is anything but modern-day commercial football culture, including the closed team store adjacent to the Tudor pavilion, amazingly we came across zero (0) souvenir stands either outside or in the stadium, perhaps a first in major football grounds. Side streets and back alleys lead one to the old ground – an urban setting only the biggest stadiafile, urbanism junkie or truest of true-blue Pompey supporter could love.

Just an introduction to the stadium's range of artistic murals.
Just an introduction to the stadium’s range of artistic murals.
The cozy Specks Lane just outside the East side's Milton End.
The cozy Specks Lane just outside the East side’s Milton End. (Photo: Stadiafile)
A prison-yard aesthetic welcomes Away supporters to Milton End.
Crawley Town fans enter a not-so welcoming Milton End. (Photo: Stadiafile)
The tudor pavilion on Fratton Park's southwest end.
Ah, there is the cozy Tudor pavilion I’d heard so much about. (Photo: Stadiafile)

Once inside, the 21,000-seat stadium is surprisingly large. Our tickets were in the North Stand and the first thing one notices is the impressive Fratton End.  Home to Pompey’s core supporters, this single tier “kop” was rocking all afternoon led by this guy. As an American, I am always impressed how European or South American football supporters keep singing or chanting for their club, win or lose – in America we tend to boo when our team’s losing.  Following a back-breaking goal by visiting Crawley Town, the Fratton End literally did not miss a beat of “(Gus) Wittingham’s Blue Army”. 

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The Fratton End fills up pre-match – it impressed all afternoon. (Photo: Stadiafile)
Archibald Leitch's subtly beautiful South Stand.
Archibald Leitch’s subtly beautiful South Stand. (Photo: Stadiafile)

Sitting opposite Archibald Leitch’s original South Stand, I had all game to soak in its understated charms. Other than an unfortunately placed camera perch above the South Stand roof, Leitch’s structure has a subtle beauty common to a lot of his work. The small lower seating section is built partially below the playing field, giving the illusion it grows out of the pitch. The larger upper tier sits elegantly above the lower seating tier and houses team execs and other box seating. A crisp metal roof caps it off and the whole package forms a perfect bookend to the action on the pitch.

The lower tier seats seem to grow right out of the brilliantly green pitch.
The lower tier seats seem to grow right out of the brilliantly green pitch. (Photo: Stadiafile)

The excitement of the Fratton End and the calm elegance of the South Stand is not matched by the underwhelming Milton End that houses away supporters. For a long time this was England’s largest uncovered terrace, perhaps intended to send a message from the home supporters. Although a roof and new video board were added in recent years, this end is woefully under designed.

The uninspired Milton End.
The uninspired Milton End. (Photo: Stadiafile)

Between the North Stand and Milton End a dreadfully austere Police Box throws its tinted gaze on the festive atmosphere. Looking at the Police Box I couldn’t help but think of the wonderful Pavilion similarly situated at Craven Cottage in London. The difference between the two speaks volumes about the difference in architectural ambition of the two-Leitch designed stadiums. In fact, Fratton Park originally had a similar pavilion to Craven Cottage, complete with clock tower. Integrating necessary infrastructure like police viewpoints into a stadium is essential and the prominence of the box here indicates the lack of foresight in Fratton Park’s design.

The Police Stand continues the Milton End's prison-yard vibe.
The austere Police Box looks down on the action. (Photo: Stadiafile)

Graffiti-lined walls that feature on the procession to Fratton Park continue inside with a series of community-designed murals. This is possibly the least expensive stadium upgrade in modern history, an indication of the chaotic state of the club’s leadership over the past fifteen years.

Not sure the significance of this donkey holding the Pompey crest.
Not sure the significance of this kangaroo holding the Pompey crest outside Fratton Park. (Photo: Stadiafile)

Since 2003, at least five major plans have been proposed to either renovate or tear down Fratton Park and build anew, either on site or off. During that period, the club has been bought and resold numerous times, the much sought-after rights to Fratton Park and its surroundings a valuable piece of the sale. In the meantime, the club is left in limbo and the once great Fratton Park has fallen into disrepair. It is not a new story to English football clubs, where frequently generic new stadiums replace character-filled old parks. St. Mary’s Stadium replaced The Dell at Southampton, Emirates Stadium replaced Highbury at Arsenal to name just two. Whatever Fratton Parks’s future holds, one hopes its sloppy and thoughtless aspects will be forgotten while the charm and character Fratton Park does have can be appreciated and enhanced.