Obviously as we all know, the club has survived and three relegations later they find themselves in League Two. Bury’s new chairman was continuing to get his club out of a financial mess. As a reward to the fans for sticking by the club, he announced that he’d be putting on free coach travel down to Portsmouth.
It was an opportunity that I couldn’t afford to miss. In recent weeks I’d been struggling to wake up for college, but somehow I pulled myself up from bed at 06:00. Quite how I managed that, I’ll never know. A quick wash and a brew later and Gary and Danny had arrived to pick me up, with our first destination Gigg Lane.
We arrived in Bury with plenty of time to spare to catch the coach. What awaited us was a scene of chaos and confusion. Seven coaches had been booked, but only two had bothered to show up. The cause of the problem soon became clear. The coach company was from Blackburn, and as we all know, the wheel had only recently arrived in the Lancashire town. As a result, the company were still experiencing a few teething problems. Eventually Red Rose Travel coach number five was kind enough to show up and we scrambled on to get the best seats.
Some smart arse – stood at the back of the queue – was keen to stress that “there’s no rush. There’s enough seats. We’re all going to get there!”. The man in question ended up sitting next to the lavatory all the way down to the South Coast and back.
Leaving Gigg Lane at 08:10 progress was steady and we enjoyed a service station break just before 10:30. I don’t have a clue where the service station was, but it was a case of Deja Vu for me and Danny. When we went down to Swansea in 2011 we were dumped off the coach at this particular location, just five minutes before the McDonald’s breakfast deadline. On this occasion we left the coach at 10:28, leaving us just two minutes to order before the dreaded normal menu returned.
Despite our best efforts we couldn’t quite order in time as a fat bloke jumped in front of us and grabbed the last breakfast of the day. He marched off in victorious manner, devouring his goods as the rest of us could only look on in horror.
Soon the Sunderland and York fans joined the party; off to Swansea and Newport respectively. We waved goodbye to the congregation of football fans and carried on down to Portsmouth. I had my Mum’s AA Road map from 2009 at hand, so if the driver got lost I could kindly direct him – unless there had been a substantial highway redevelopment programme since the publication of the map.
Just after 13:00 we arrived in the “seaside resort” of Portsmouth; that’s how the AA marked it anyway, with a large radiant sunshine on the map. Any place with a sunshine next to their name must be beautiful I thought! That was until I flicked to the next page and Blackpool had also been awarded the same status.
We disembarked the coach and were told to walk through an industrial estate to find the away end. Ignoring instruction we set off around the ground to find the famous entrance. The area was surprisingly quiet. Fratton Park appeared to be a place that fills up at the last minute, a bit like Turf Moor or The Reebok. Perhaps the home faithful were too busy spraying graffiti on the walls of their own ground to care.
I’d visited Fratton Park last year as we were staying down on the South Coast for a couple of days. We rolled up at Pompey and I was speechless when I saw the amount of colour and art that was on display. Yes, Southampton fans may be laughing at the mess that the place is in, but character and colour is better than the boring modern shell that is on show at St. Mary’s. The smell of paint was still fresh in the air after the walls had recently been repainted by local artists. The work on show was incredible and it’s a shame I didn’t have my better camera with me to capture the unique detail on show.
Approaching the away end we were greeted with yet more colour. A large winding yellow staircase was rising above the turnstiles. It looked like a scene from the Wizard of Oz. I bet Dorothy and the Tin Man didn’t have to use electronic ticket barriers to reach their destination, nor were they subjected to alcohol and pyro searches. Off the yellow staircase were the toilets. The female ones had plastic flaps acting as a temporary door. It reminded me of a the butcher’s at Bolton market or the deep freeze in a McDonald’s restaurant. I’ve just realised that I’ve mentioned McDonald’s a lot in this write up… I am not getting paid… honest!
Meanwhile, visiting the gents toilets was possibly one of the most horrific experiences I’ve had on my travels so far. I had to balance myself over the trench which was on the floor with one arm on the wall to ensure I didn’t fall in. The leaking ceiling which attempted to shelter this most private of activities resulted in me emerging from the cesspit looking like I had urinated all over my head. I may have been soaking wet, but at least I could now enjoy a nice pint of beer. Wrong. They don’t sell beer in the away end at Fratton Park. To be fair, it was printed on the tickets… only we noticed it after we had sat down.
The away section at Fratton Park is in the Milton End. Holding 3,200 spectators the stand was split in two for the afternoon allowing for segregation. Up until 2007 this end of the ground was without a roof, but Premier League fans were soon treated to one shortly before financial meltdown. The Milton End doesn’t have a concourse with the only space to move around being a path at the back. Sitting at the very front of the stand you sit below pitch level. I loved sitting at the bottom as it provided an angle of the play that you can very rarely find. It was similar to being on the front row at the cinema.
Opposite was the Fratton End. Built in 1997, this is the newest part of the ground and is where the more vocal Pompey fans congregate. I couldn’t see one empty seat in the stand on my visit, something which you can’t often say in the Football League.
To our right was the North Stand, which again was practically full. Built in 1935 it has two tiers, the first of which used to be terracing. Supporting pillars can restrict view but it isn’t that bad. On our left was the South Stand which is ten years older than the North. This side has two clear tiers and houses press and player facilities.
Going into the match there were just four points separating the two teams. Pompey sat in 15th place, with Bury two places above the relegation zone in 21st place. It had been another unstable week for the Shakers who sacked their manager Kevin Blackwell, leaving Ronnie Jepson in temporary charge of the club. The last time I saw Portsmouth play was in the summer of 2012 when they travelled to Gibraltar for a pre season friendly against the national team. It was a fantastic evening out on the rock with the Pompey fans, who all seemed to quite like having a Bolton fan in amongst them. Competitively I hadn’t seen Portsmouth since they were in the Premier League. They arrived at Bolton in 2010 having already been relegated, and left with a point. Kevin Davies and Ivan Klasnic had given Wanderers an early 2-0 lead before a double strike from Aruna Dindane rescued a point.
In contrast, I first saw them play in 2003 at Old Trafford. Pompey lost 3-0 in a match which saw goals from Diego Forlan, Roy Keane and a young lad called Cristiano Ronaldo. It was Ronaldo’s first goal for United and I remember the match to this day, especially seeing as though Teddy Sheringham was up front for the blues.
I can also remember watching the TV in amazement as Portsmouth hosted AC Milan at home in the UEFA Cup. A star studded line up arrived on the South Coast with names such as Ronaldinho, Shevchenko, Gattuso, Seedorf, Pato, Pirlo and Kaka playing under the Fratton Park floodlights.
Today they welcomed a team with former Burnley goalkeeper Brian Jensen. The two teams emerged on to the pitch. Portsmouth in their traditional home strip of blue shirts with white shorts. Bury were in their white home shirts with dark blue shorts. The famous Fratton Park bells were ringing and the atmosphere was palpable.
Phil Smith came in for his fifth appearance for Pompey with first choice goalkeeper Trevor Carson unavailable as he is still a Bury player. Smith made an immediate impact when he kept out an early Shaun Harrad header. Portsmouth responded almost immediately and came close to scoring themselves just a minute later. Ricky Holmes swung in a cross from the right and John Marquis connected to send a header against the underside of the crossbar. The ball bounced over the line but the striker was adjudged to have been in an offside position.
More pressure followed before the home side eventually got their reward on four minutes. Holmes took an inch perfect corner and Bondz N’Gala rose the highest to head the ball into the bottom left hand corner. It was a well taken goal, but Bury should have dealt with it far better.
Bury should have been awarded a penalty on 18 minutes when Yassin Moutaouakil fouled Tom Soares in the area, but the referee dubiously waved play on. Soares should have equalised when he had a great opportunity to score after receiving the ball inside the area. He was given too much room by the Pompey defence, but he couldn’t find the net and smashed the ball over the bar.
Half Time arrived and we decided it was time to stretch our legs. It was a bit like being confined in a prison cell with the lack of room in the away area. Fortunately Bury hadn’t sold the full allocation, despite bringing a healthy 497 fans down from Manchester. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the away end is like when Southampton or Manchester United visit!
Bury started the second half better than their hosts and caused the Pompey defence numerous problems. Goalkeeper Smith was in inspired form and had to be at his best to prevent The Shakers from levelling on 55 minutes. Shaun Harrad once again with the effort. Pompey were seemingly fragile at the back and loan signing Danny Hylton was next to go close with a strong shot. Hylton had joined Bury on a month loan from Rotherham United and impressed on his debut.
Bury were not creating much and Jordan Mustoe’s free-kick flew harmlessly wide on 82 minutes. Pompey nearly doubled their lead in the closing stages when Jed Wallace stole possession and set Ricky Holmes up one on one with Bury keeper Brian Jensen. The Beast did enough to put Wallace off as he smashed the ball against the post. The home side hung on in the end and claimed the three points.
We took our time leaving the ground at the end as we made our way back through the industrial estate to find our coach. Everybody was on board as we departed promptly to make our way back to Manchester stopping near Warwick for a “luxury break” as the driver called it. I arrived back home just after 10:30 meaning I could catch Southampton’s draw away at Manchester United on Match of the Day… something I’m sure that went down well back in Portsmouth.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed my day. Yes, Bury lost but that didn’t matter. I had visited what may well be my favourite football league ground. The place had so much character and history; it’s hard not to love it. I’m glad the plans for a move or redevelopment fell through as I hope to visit Fratton Park many more times in coming years.
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 244 miles
- ADMISSION: £15
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £3
- PIE: Didn’t bother