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Fratton Park History

A History of Fratton Park

In early 1898 the land immediately west of Fratton Station on Portsea Island was exploited largely for market gardening, crisscrossed by a network of semi-rural lanes. The now familiar light industrial and urban sprawl towards Milton, then to all intents and purposes a village, was but a twinkle in a town planner’s eye.

But the catalyst to spark this concrete, brick and tarmac revolution was arguably the most significant and iconic building constructed in Portsmouth during the 20th Century: Fratton Park.

On April 5, 1898, six ‘businessmen and sportsmen’ met at 12 High Street Old Portsmouth to form a syndicate to start a professional football club in Portsmouth. To this end, they bought approximately five acres of agricultural land close to Goldsmith Avenue for £4,950. To emphasise the fertile nature of the land they had bought, the new company’s cash book registered its first transaction thus: Received X pounds and X shillings for X potatoes.

A fruit and veg business this was not however and in the next 12 months the ground was levelled, drained and turfed. A 240-foot-long stand was constructed on the south side of the stadium and to the north a 100-foot stand was built. Cinder terracing was laid around the rest of the enclosure.

On September 5, 1899, Fratton Park hosted its first official game – a friendly with Southampton, whose success, along with that of the local Royal Artillery club had piqued interest for top-class football in the city – which was won 2-0. On September 9 the first Southern League game against Reading was also won by the same score. A 9,000 crowd-generated receipts of £263.

By early 1900 the new ground was complete with the final construction costs totalling around £16,000. Turnstiles, dressing rooms and committee rooms had been installed but a year later the original south stand roof blew off in a gale, costing £120 in repairs.

The stadium was quickly regarded as being one of the most well-appointed south of London and the club thrived, winning the Southern League in 1902 and in 1903, Fratton Park hosted an England international game against Wales with Pompey player Albert Houlker making his England debut.

Fratton Park was given a facelift in 1905. The mock Tudor building familiar to us today is built, including an impressive clock tower and balcony, giving the directors and management commanding views of the game.

This was a gift from Director Sir John Brickwood, a local brewer and the architectural style is similar to many of Brickwoods’ public houses in the area as his house architect John Cogswell came up with the design. One such pub was built adjacent to the imposing new entrance in Frogmore Road. Additional terracing of the standing enclosures also took place.

The pub wasn’t there just to serve thirsty fans coming to games. The tight-knitted terraced houses and rectangles of roads – Carisbrooke, Apsley, Alverstone and Ruskin and among others – were springing up at a rate, bringing short-term gain to Sir John’s brewing empire, but longer-term pain for Pompey as the ground was now hemmed in on two sides.

A ground attendance record of 27,000 was set for the English (FA) Cup tie with (Sheffield) Wednesday in 1909, but Pompey was soon to face a financial crisis.

In 1912 relegation to the second division of the Southern League meant expensive, long railway trips to the mining communities of South Wales and the club teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. There were fears it could fall into the hands of property developers, eyeing up the land for lucrative residential.

The worst was avoided and a newly constituted club bounced back to win promotion at the first attempt, shedding the salmon pink, then white, colours of the club's origins and opting instead for blue shirts and white shorts, with the city’s star and crescent emblem for its crest.

By now the South Stand has a capacity itself of 1,028 seats, but a whirlwind caused significant damage in 1916. Football was significantly constrained for the war, but the women’s game continued to flourish in Portsmouth with several games staged at Fratton Park. The city’s ladies were regarded as some of the best footballers in the land.

Baseball even came to Fratton Park in 1918 the US Army beat the Canadian Army 4-3 in front of a largely bemused crowd, which raised funds for the British Red Cross.

In 1920 the ongoing battle for supremacy between The Football League and the Southern League was decisively settled. Southern League clubs, including champions Pompey, joined the newly-created third division. A pathway to the top was established.

Promotion to the second division was achieved in 1924.

Pompey’s promotion encouraged the club’s directors to take the stadium to the next level in preparation for what they hoped would be first-division football soon. In April 1925, the original south stand was demolished and work began on a new £20,000 stand. With 100 construction workers involved in the project, the new stand was complete by August.

At 360 feet long, the new stand saw the clock tower demolished and part of the old mock-Tudor pavilion incorporated underneath. There were seats for 4,000 in the upper tier and a lower-standing enclosure holding 8,000. Glazed panels provide natural light at the rear of the stand. The pitch was moved two yards to the north and made slightly narrower.

The stand was opened by The Football League President John McKenna, and constructed on the back of a £24,000 bank overdraft, guaranteed by the Directors. The architect was Archibald Leitch, who incorporated his ‘trademark’ cross-iron frontage to the stand.

Their confidence was well-founded and in 1927, Pompey gained promotion to Division One.

In 1929 the Milton End was re-terraced bringing the capacity of Fratton Park to 40,000. The northwest corner was quickly dubbed ‘Boilermakers’ Hump’, as men of that trade in the Dockyard tended to congregate there. Pompey were also FA Cup finalists that year, losing 2-0 to Bolton at Wembley.

In another historical quirk, aviation pioneer Amy Johnson kicked off a Portsmouth schools’ match in 1930 and attracted a 10,000 gate. The club’s continuing success saw the overdraft to build the South Stand reduced to around £13,000 in the same year.

Three years later numbered shirts were worn for the first time in England in an international trial match at Fratton Park. ‘It’ll never catch on’ is the verdict of one contemporary report.

In 1934 Pompey were back at Wembley only to lose 2-1 in the FA Cup final to Manchester City, but in the same summer centre-half Jimmy Allen was sold to Aston Villa for a then-British transfer record of £10,775. The money was reinvested in the construction of a new covered North Stand covered and uncovered terrace. Again Leitch was the architect, but the stand was a more functional affair, bending to the track of Milton Lane giving it the still visible kinked roof-line. Leitch envisaged the upper tier of the stand being seated, but the Directors preferred additional capacity, so it was standing room only.

Fratton Park’s capacity was now 58,000 and the 1934-1935 accounts reveal the total cost of the stand was actually £7,000. That capacity was never to be fully tested by in 1939 new record attendance of 47,000 saw the fourth round FA Cup tie with West Ham United, as Pompey made it to Wembley again, this time triumphing over much-fancied Wolves 4-1, becoming the first club south of London to win the FA Cup.

When war was declared, football was suspended, but gradually it returned in a limited form with gates severely restricted in case of air raids. Indeed, in 1941 ‘Enemy action’ according to the club’s record book, that is to say, German bombers over Portsmouth, forced the cancellation of a scheduled War League match with Brighton.

Pompey’s grip on the FA Cup was quickly loosened, losing in the third round to Birmingham in the first tournament after the war. The country’s appetite for live sport was emphasised in 1945 when Fratton Park hosted a boxing tournament, attracting around 10,000.

As sport flourished post-war, the Olympics came to London in 1948 and Fratton Park hosted a game in the football tournament between Holland and Ireland. Holland won 3-1.

Pompey were also building towards glory themselves and in that same year Chairman Richard Vernon Stokes challenged the team to win the league in their club’s Golden Jubilee season. They did and repeated the feat in 1949-50.

In February 1949 a crowd of 51,385 – a record attendance – saw the FA Cup sixth-round tie with Derby County. Pompey won 2-1 and reached the semi-finals, but hopes of a famous league and cup ‘double’ were dashed by second-division Leicester City.

In 1951 Leitch’s original concept for the North Stand came to fruition and 4,200 seats were installed in the upper tier and the lower terrace was re-concreted and new crash barriers were installed. The Festival of Britain included a display at the ground by the Portsmouth Ladies’ Physical Culture Club, attracting 12,000.

More than 30,000 attended a reserve team game in 1952 as vouchers are distributed for a forthcoming FA Cup home tie and in 1953 Fratton Park staged its first floodlit game – the lights installed on the four corners of the north and south stand roofs – as Pompey draw 1-1 with neighbours Southampton.

That busy year also saw England legend Bobby Charlton also make his international debut at Fratton Park, scoring twice for England schools, while the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was celebrated with marching bands on the pitch.

The ‘Station End’ of Fratton Park, so called because it was the closest to Fratton Station, by the mid-1950s was increasingly anachronistic, even by the standards of the day, and in 1955 plans were unveiled for a new stand to replace the long-standing barrelled roofed and cinder tarmac original.

Before it could be completed, Fratton Park hosted the first Football League floodlit match in February. Pompey lost 2-0 to Newcastle, then in August 1956 the two-tier, concrete Fratton End is opened, built at a cost of £40,000. It is an innovative affair and featured in a contemporary construction magazine.

Floodlit football was also here to stay and in 1962, as Pompey emerge from a dismal period as third division champions, which had seen them fall from the first to the third divisions in just three seasons, four floodlight pylons were constructed to replace the lights on the top of the stands. The 120-foot towers cost £14,000 and were paid for by funds raised by the Pompey Supporters’ Club. A plaque to commemorate this used to be sited on the southwest pylons.

Even as the land around Fratton Park closed in – behind the Fratton End is now a rail goods yard and to the north the NAAFI building and various light industrial units, the Board of Directors still assume keeping Fratton Park spruce is the club’s future. In 1964 a £17,000 re-vamp of the North Stand is announced and in 1968 the wooden seats in the South Stand are replaced with plastic ones, red plastic ones to boot.

But in 1969 plans for an East-West relief road in Portsmouth were revealed by the city council and its proposed route was through the centre of Fratton Park. The search for a new stadium had begun.

At once a new £2.5m stadium was mooted on the site of the then Portsmouth Airport, which was scheduled to close by the mid-1970s, but this site would eventually be used for houses and light industry in the early 1980s and the relief road scheme never saw the light of day.

1969 too saw American club Dallas Tornado become the first US soccer team to play at Fratton Park. Pompey won 5-2 and in 1970 there was talk of American investment in Portsmouth FC, but, like the road and stadium, nothing materialised. Fratton Park’s capacity is 46,000.

As the club passed into the hands of Southampton property developer John Deacon in 1972, the club was at a low ebb. Marooned in the second division, Fratton Park had its lowest attendance for a league match in December as just 4,688 passed through the turnstiles for a game with Middlesbrough.

The initial enthusiasm engendered by Deacon’s spending spree on the pitch – the white shirts the club adopted were less popular – saw attendances rise. In January 1974 Fratton Park hosted its first-ever Sunday match, an FA Cup tie with Orient, which attracted more than 32,000. In response to pitch invasions by young fans after goals, during that summer the club installed moats (with no water in!) in front of the Fratton End and Milton End goals. The move cut the capacity to 42,000. The moat at the Milton End is still evident to this day.

In 1975 the ground hosted poorly-attended a pop concert with Georgie Fame topping the bill and a year later a more successful beer festival there saw 3,600 pints drunk during the event.

By 1980 Pompey were in the fourth division, escaping it only by the skin of their teeth on the last day of the season. As Pompey readjusted to life in Division Three, Deacon mooted hosting a professional rugby league team at Fratton Park, but the idea was rejected by fans by a margin of 10 to 1.

Football was changing and in 1983 after significant pitch invasions in the last two home games of the previous season, when Pompey won promotion to the old second division, fences are installed around the perimeter of the stands. This is also a response to the increased level of so-called ‘football hooliganism’ which had been on the rise since the late 1960s. A series of fences also spilt the terracing into compartments at the Milton End and the concept of an away section – exclusively for fans of the opposing team – was born. Fratton Park’s capacity was 36,000.

In 1984 the New Zealand international side played at Fratton Park, claiming the honour of travelling farthest to play a game here. Pompey won 3-2. Fratton Park is also possibly unique in having staged a match of both the All Blacks, New Zealand’s rugby side, and the All Whites, its football team.

Across England, decades of under-investment in stadia came home to roost in 1985 and Pompey were affected by the fall-out. In that summer emergency fire safety work took place on the wooden North and South Stands, additional escape routes are constructed and as a result, the distinctive Leitch steel criss-cross frontage was covered up.

Twelve months later upper tier of the concrete Fratton End is condemned as the aggregate used to construct it in the 1950s had been dredged from the Solent and had corroded the steel supports over time. This reduced the stadium’s capacity, along with other safety constraints, to 28,000.

In 1988 new club owner Jim Gregory, who had bought the club from Deacon, completely revamped the North and South Stands, replacing the old asbestos cladding with a light alloy material. The South Stand enclosure was also re-concreted. The condemned upper tier of the Fratton End was demolished, leaving a shallow uncovered terrace behind that goal.

In January 1989 Gregory announced plans for a 24,000-capacity ‘tradium’ on the site of the soon-to-be-vacated goods yard to the west. The concept included a mix of retail and light industry on the site to help fund it – hence the name. The stadium would have been located approximately where the current B&Q store and car park stands. Arguably this remains the biggest ‘missed opportunity’ for the club to relocate.

The Taylor Report, compelling all first and second-division teams, including Pompey, to have all-seater stadiums. The search for an alternative to Fratton Park was underway in earnest.

Pompey’s plan had changed as the tradium idea melted away. A scheme to build a two-tier Milton End had been rejected due to light-blocking concerns for the houses behind. After negotiations with the city council, which produced a special report detailing the pros and cons of half a dozen potential locations for a new stadium, and in 1992 Gregory put forward plans for a 24,000 all-seater stadium at Farlington, close to the A27 and nearby marshes.

Baptised ‘Parkway’, owing to plans for a station with park and ride facilities being part of the scheme, the plans were narrowly approved at a controversial city council meeting in October. There had been strong Conservative opposition to the mooted development and the then government planning minister decided to ‘call-in’ the scheme for a public inquiry.

In December 1994 the planning review was published and the scheme was rejected by the central government. The disruption to migrating Brent Geese caught the headlines, but the potential congestion caused by the stadium and associated retail outlets was the primary reason for the reception. The club was back to square one. Chairman Gregory was in failing health and he handed over control of the club to his son Martin.

In August 1996 Fratton Park, after a dispensation for several years as the parkway plan rumbled on, finally became an all-seater stadium. Seats are bolted onto the south stand enclosure concrete and also seven rows of seats are bolted to the Milton End and North Stand concrete terraces. Capacity is reduced to less than 8,000.

That same summer, Martin Gregory ‘sells’ the club to recently resigned England manager Terry Venables for just £1. By November additional seats had been added to the north terrace and Milton End, bringing the capacity to around 14,000.

With the newly founded Premier League generating previously unheard-of money for the top clubs and grants for stadium improvement all the rage, grounds are being refurbished or relocated across the country. Pompey were in danger of being left behind. Pompey had missed promotion to the new top flight by just a couple of goals in 1993.

In 1997 plans, originally conceived in 1995, for a new 4,500 seater, Fratton End were revived as well as a new scheme to extend the roof of the North Stand. Construction started at the end of the season and the new north cover is ready by August and the new Fratton End opened in October. Ground capacity was now around 19,000.

Almost 9,000 attend and England Women’s international game against Portugal at Fratton Park in 2002; a then-record attendance in England for the women’s game and in 2003 Pompey, now owned by Serbo-American Milan Manadaric who had bought the club out of administration after it almost collapsed from its debts in 1999, guided the club to the Premier League under manager Harry Redknapp and his assistant Jim Smith.

With Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal now due in town, additional seats are infilled in corners and other spare areas to bring the capacity to around 20,000. The requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act had also seen a wheelchair section incorporated into the new Fratton End.

Mandaric announced plans to rotate Fratton Park on 90 degrees in 2004. Funded by luxury flats on site, the existing Fratton End would be extended to create a new West Stand, a new two-tier East Stand would be built 30-40 metres or so further away from the houses on Alverstone Road and a new North End would be built. A truncated South Stand would become the away end. The capacity mooted was around 28,000.

The stadium was to be part-funded by building 400 flats on land to the west. The planning application though got mired in issues around the mains cable running under the proposed development and the viability of the residential development meant it never saw the light of day.

In 2006, Milan Manadaric sold the club to Franco-Russian Sacha Gaydamak, who immediately saw the club’s future away from Fratton Park.

With Pompey riding high in the Premier League, Gaydamak announced plans for a new state-of-the-art 36,000-seater stadium to be built on land to be reclaimed close to the dockyard. The plan is immediately controversial, attracting criticism not least from the Historic Dockyard itself, which hadn’t been consulted on moving a major tourist attraction in HMS Warrior. In the end security concerns, given the scheme was so close to a military base, meant it was abandoned.

As a sticking plaster to Fratton Park, in August the ‘hanging baskets’ were inelegantly grafted onto the upper tier of the South Stand and the Milton End was covered for the first time. The capacity of Fratton Park is around 21,000.

In 2008 Pompey are FA Cup winners and play the mighty AC Milan at Fratton Park in the UEFA Cup.

When Pompey became England’s biggest community-owned club in 2013, albeit now playing in the fourth tier (League 2), thoughts of a new or redeveloped stadium had been on the back burner as plans for a rebuild began.

The capacity of Fratton Park was slashed to 18,100 on safety grounds. A backlog of planned maintenance needed to be addressed and it would be funded by the proceeds of a deal which would see a Tesco store be built behind the Fratton End goal.

The £3m received would be spent prudently on realigning walkways, staircases, and installing prosaic things like re-wiring and sprinkler systems. In 2017 significant work to underpin the south-east and north-east corners of the respective stands was undertaken, bringing capacity back up to around 19,400.

In the summer of 2017 fans voted to sell to Tornante, a company owned by current owner Michael Eisner. One of the key factors in the vote was the promise of additional capital resources to definitively resolve the should-they-stay or should-they-go dilemma of the club.

In early 2020 the club unveiled plans to revamp the Milton End in the summer and has been working closely with the city council on plans to redevelop the North Stand, as well as the wider area to the north of Fratton Park, which takes us to the present day where these developments continue to be made to support Fratton Park's (and Pompey's) 125-year history.

For the latest updates on the Fratton Park redevelopment, click here.

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