Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game
For many, football in the fearsome, fortified naval base of Portsmouth is typified by that mad guy covered head-to-teeth-to-toe in the insignia of his beloved local club.
John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood might personify Portsmouth FC – but he’s equally famous for being a mild-mannered antiquarian by day. For it was committed, responsible Pompey fans who saved this venerable club, saddled with impossible debts arising from disgraceful mismanagement. All this occurred, ironically, in the wake of the surprise FA Cup win of 2008.
Banned from playing his Pompey Chimes that day at Wembley – a ringing bell and chant that echo the earliest days of the game in Portsmouth – John PFC Westwood was at least able to take his unique brand of support over the Channel to Europe following the cup win. Two years later, Westwood and his beloved Portsmouth were barred, UEFA preventing the club from entering the Europa League given the financial meltdown on Portsea.
Three months after steering the club out of League Two in 2017, the Pompey Supporters Trust sold their beloved PFC to the Tornante Company, headed by former Disney boss Michael Eisner. His investment stuck in the third tier ever since, the man raised on Park Avenue in New York has still promised significant improvements to venerable Fratton Park. Its external appearance will remain in place, a façade of historic character in a world of out-of-town new-builds.
Football came early to England’s only island city. Those English sailors, dockers and engineers who exported the game all around the world in the late 19th century had set off from Portsmouth, then the biggest naval port and industrial zone in the world. And they had played the game here, back in the 1850s, before it took off in the other industrial hubs of Victorian Britain.
Organised clubs were slow to set up, though, the first being Royal Artillery FC, who played at the United Service Recreation Ground behind the historic dockyard. As the nearby Guildhall clock chimed each quarter hour, spectators would sing with it, encouraging the team to score before the referee blew for full time.
Like Portsmouth FC, formed as Royal Artillery folded at the very end of the 19th century, the team the locals followed was nicknamed ‘Pompey’, after the town itself. Few football nicknames are shrouded in as much mystery. Shakespeare, sailing charts, sailors scaling Pompey’s Pillar in Egypt to spite Napoleon, naval prisons – all have been cited as viable sources for the long-familiar term, all with suitable maritime and/or military links.
Royal Artillery reached the final of the FA Amateur Cup in 1896 but, after joining the Southern League a year later, were soon exposed as being professional. Their disbandment led to the successful creation of today’s Portsmouth FC. Players and spectators simply switched teams, allegiances and customs – hence the Pompey Chimes.
The town did have an amateur side, though: Portsmouth AFC. In operation from 1884 to 1896, the main forerunner of the professional club has one other claim to fame – a unique one. Their goalkeeper, AC Smith was, in fact, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, who had a medical practice in Southsea in the 1880s.
With its roots deep in beer – founder John Brickwood ran a local brewery – Portsmouth FC were formed in 1898, shortly after the demise of amateur counterparts AFC and before the collapse of Royal Artillery.
Brickwood and his fellow founding partners had the sense to buy plot of land in Fratton, an area of Portsmouth that hadn’t then been industrialised. Fratton Park has been the club’s home since day one, the start of a successful debut campaign in the Southern League underlined by a win over eternal local rivals Southampton. When venues were selected to host the football tournament of the 1948 Olympic Games, Fratton Park got the nod over its coastal neighbours and witness the greatest Dutch players of the day – Faas Wilkes and Abe Lenstra – overcome Ireland 3-1.
Club colours and iconography still echo Portmouth’s history and tradition, blue-and-white replacing the initial pink and the star-and-crescent badge harking back to the Crusades of Richard I, long a local motif. Decades later, owner Michael Eisner made sure to consult fans when tweaking the motif.
Military ties also loom large. Pompey won three of their four major trophies either side of World War II, during which Field Marshal Montgomery was made club president. Letters were later found from Monty to the captain of the Pompey side who won back-to-back titles in 1949 and 1950, Reg Flewin.
Flewin, a former Royal Marine boxing champion, died a week after Pompey lifted their next major trophy in 2008, not living to see his club’s near ruin and subsequent communal revival.
Arriving in town, local transport and timings
The nearest airport to Portsmouth is Southampton, 35km (22 miles) away. From the rail station, Southampton Airport Parkway, right beside the terminal, a train to Portsmouth (£14, every 15-20mins, journey time 1hr 15mins) requires one change at Southampton Central or Eastleigh. Fratton, near the stadium, is one stop before the main station of Portsmouth & Southsea.
A taxi to Portsmouth should cost around £40-£45, pre-booked with Aquacars (02392 654 321) nearer to £35.
Direct from London Waterloo, it’s around 1hr 45mins, advance singles £15, trains every 20mins. From Manchester, you need to change in London or Southampton, overall journey time 5hrs, singles around £100. Adding a Portsmouth PlusBus ticket (£3) to your fare allows you to use local buses all day. Services are run by Stagecoach (DayRider £4.30) and First Bus (FirstDay pass £4.50).
Portsmouth & Southsea station is in the centre of town, halfway between the Guildhall and Cascades shopping centre, and the harbour and Fratton.
Where to Drink
The best pubs and bars for football fans
Everyone flocks to the Gunwharf Quays of a weekend, with its late-opening nightspots of the All Bar One variety. The Liquorist, the former Bar 38, shows football.
Traditional and well-run Fuller’s pub/restaurants also line the waterfront: the Bridge Tavern on Camber Dock is the one that shows big-match football.
Near Portsmouth & Southsea station, the Brewhouse & Kitchen is the most individual venue, gleaming copper vats indicating its twin role as a micro-brewery, Island City, Matcham’s Glory and Sexton recent examples worth sampling. Decent food, too, plus a rooftop garden.
A few buildings along, the Isambard Kingdom Brunel is a prominent Wetherspoon, named after an eminent local. The Fleet alongside is a decent place to catch the game, with a popular beer garden and drinks deals. The Park Tavern on Edinburgh Road has been known to get lively at times, usually involving an older clientele.
The other downtown bar (and retail) strip is along Palmerston Road in Southsea, where you’ll find another Wetherspoon, the Lord Palmerston. Deeper into Southsea on Victoria Road S, The Fat Fox is a fine choice for football action (three 90-degree HD screens, five standard ones) and live music (Sleaford Mods, Bastille).
For just a damn decent, well run pub, with varied ales and fine food, head to the CAMRA-lauded Hole In The Wall on Great Southsea Street.
Where to stay
The best hotels for the ground and around town
Right next to the stadium, the ibis budget Portsmouth has 120 affordable rooms with showers and flat-screen TVs. Free WiFi and off-site parking also feature.
Conveniently set by Portsmouth & Southsea station, one stop from Fratton, the Premier Inn City Centre is a cut above others in this nationwide chain, rooms featuring 40-inch TV screens. For the seaside, its bars and restaurants, then sister hotel the Premier Inn Southsea is slightly cheaper and with easy access to the Historic Dockyard.
Nearby, tucked a little inland, the Holiday Inn Portsmouth is equally well located, with a pool, gym, sauna and steam room.
For a lodging that is independently run, the historic Royal Maritime Club provided a home for resting sailors in the 1850s, receiving royal patronage from Victoria. Recently renovated, with a pool and spa, it offers a real taste of Portsmouth round the corner from the Historic Dockyard.
Alongside, The George is both a superb ten-room hotel and excellent pub/restaurant, the last surviving 18th-century tavern in Portsmouth. Its Sunday roasts are legendary. The bar is home fans only on match days.
For the perfect waterside location, plus rooms of exquisite taste, the Ship Leonard Boutique Hotel occupies a 200-year old Georgian building. All at a price, of course, but do ask about weekend rates. Alongside, the Keppels Head Hotel dates back to the late 1700s, when the admiral of the same name was a naval man of note. Rooms are somewhat modest but the setting cannot be beat, overlooking Portsmouth Harbour.