On a good day, the sound accompanying that first step onto an away terrace can drag hairs you forgot you had to their feet. When you’re a long way from home looking out onto unfamiliar turf, hearing thousands of accents you know, already in celebratory chorus feels like a victory before the game’s even begun; as if the terrace was newly claimed Lutonian ground.
On other away days that first step can deflate even the most inflated 4-pint optimists as you realise there’s only 250 of us and there’s no roof. The soundtrack can be less a choir of thousands, more a lone Piper...
At Pompey away, stepping onto the packed Milton End a few minutes late due to an unplanned lap of Fratton Park, I was immediately punched in the stomach by the sound of 14,000 celebrating from the south coast, while all around me assorted farmer/cockney/rudeboy accents mumbled in staggered unison: “kin Tubbs...”
Not much of a welcome.
Built in 1898, Fratton Park is now a lovely big mess of modern football and mock Tudor cobbled onto a mini Milton Keynes. The turnstile operator was a robot but to get to it you had to negotiate alleys between backstreets that looked as if Johnny Briggs might have done the graffiti. Turn the corner and you were jarringly back in the out-of-town Peter Winkelmania whence you came. Inside, while Hatters begged for three goals among the seagulls, Fratton Park continued to confuse.
Each time Pompey made a change, a bizarre accompanying announcement went something like: “The Pompey Supersub .... brought to you by official substitutions partner Royal Navy Reserves!”
Official Substitutions Partner? Had they sold the sponsorship rights to their fucking substitutions? IS. NOTHING. SACRED.
Well not quite, it turns out. This was in fact part of a partnership between the Navy Reserves and several football clubs including Fulham, Cardiff, Sunderland and Rangers to boost recruitment and awareness about the need for Navy Reservists.
If you’ve visited these pages before you might imagine my discontent, having enjoyed a morning of away day festivities and probably not really listening or thinking properly, upon learning that such a thing as an Official Substitutions Partner dared to exist. On a day when not only were my football team getting cleared off the line more regularly than my mum’s washing on a windy weekend in Westoning, but when there had been serious talk of selling the naming rights at our beloved Kenilworth Road.
Debate had raged all week as to whether we’d rather watch our beloved team at the Zobra Auto Parts Arena or The Aerial Shop Stadion. Were we to become just another identikit modern football business after all? Just like all the others?
Well no, as it turned out, we weren’t. Not for the moment anyway.
I remember the great respect many used to have for Barcelona when they eschewed shirt sponsorship in favour of supporting UNICEF, and I was proud (and relieved like you, mate) that our club was instead making a similar gesture in renaming Kenilworth Road in support of Prostate Cancer UK for one game only.
The identity of weird old grounds like Pompey’s and ours, just like the club crest and the nickname, should be the property of the people who drag themselves, their kids and grandkids back to it year after year, just as they were once dragged themselves. It’s their home and its naming shouldn’t be dictated by corporate contract.
Sponsors, like our current form on the pitch, are temporary. The name of our home should span the generations.