The Good Companion pub on Eastern Road, less than half a mile from Fratton Park, where many Plymouth Argyle fans have gathered before the game against Portsmouth. This assemblage cannot be offered as a cross-section of Plymothian society, but they are legion: the total attendance of away fans on the day will reach 2,405, way above average for League Two. Many of the older supporters look out-of-shape, unwell, lacking any concern for their appearance. The younger are more neatly dressed but have drunk too much, some of them spilled over tables next to barely touched pints, others behaving more boisterously. The bar is at least three deep, and this is not a small bar. The staff is doing its best to chronologise service, but it cannot be guaranteed. There is queue for the men’s toilet that leads well out of its door. Approximately 90% of those present are male, all are white. Unless you feel intimidated by this, there is nothing to fear; the partisan is reactive, moved to oppose only when opposed. The atmosphere is congenial, if unrefined. Pasties are being hawked in the car park. There’s not a prawn sandwich in sight.
The North–South divide is mythic, a dichotomy that supposedly hard northerners perpetuate when wishing to denigrate supposedly soft southerners. I determine so because whenever I've travelled somewhere in this respect considered 'north' – Edinburgh, Sedgefield, Leicester, Nottingham, Grantham, Cardiff, small towns and villages in Wales and Lincolnshire – I've found the manner and attitude to be comparable in tone to that found in places like Plymouth, Bristol, Exeter, Torquay, Southampton, Portsmouth, small towns and villages in Cornwall and Somerset. The implication is predictive by dint of geographical allusion: it is not a North–South divide at all but a South East–the rest of it divide.
This still doesn’t quite satisfy. Romford and Southend hint at trouble, Cambridgeshire is as bleak as hell, and I’ve heard the Medway towns are very rough also. Jonathan Meades talking to The Quietus:
"I don't think the South is a paradise, that's a complete nonsense. I have a friend who grew up in Liverpool 8 above a pub, and he went to university in Southampton and he said that Liverpool will kick you but then say, ‘Sorry, whack,' but Southampton will just kick you. We're talking about places that are hard, without any doubt, especially port towns – Plymouth and Portsmouth as well. Say if you go to the Medway towns, they're very hard and rough places."
My formative years spent in Plymouth give credence. Whenever I return from London I’m reminded of the variance in mood, the dissimilar mores. The city isn’t as violent or shabby or parochial as it was, yet there’s still something inured about many of the residents. Not a more pleasing quality necessarily, but probably more sincere (although no less affected).
Specks Lane around the back of the away (‘Milton’) end at Fratton Park, the sort of passageway you wouldn’t want to be caught walking along, having visited as an opposing spectator, by an active mob of Portsmouth fans coming the other way. The rear gardens of terraced houses look over it from behind breeze-blocked walls and incongruously large flat-roofed garages. Facing this are graffiti covered concrete slabs aligned vertically, like a portion of the Berlin Wall. This is by far the cared less for quarter of the ground. Signs assert “No Smoking”. Fag-butts, ubiquitously littering a weedy declination held in place by those concrete monoliths, suggest otherwise. This is what all inner-city football grounds were once like, built ad hoc, giving rise to strange wasted spaces with no access; buildings born of utility, it is the spectacle within that counts.
The view from the Milton End is maybe the best Fratton Park offers: the South Stand to the right, North Stand left, the Fratton End straight ahead, and just four spindly stanchions required to carry the corrugated iron roof above. If the goals go in here, you won’t miss a thing. The South Stand is by far the most interesting, dating back to 1925, designed by the great Archibald Leitch (responsible for the Johnny Haynes stand at Craven Cottage, Ibrox, much of Villa Park, etc.) and one of the few examples of his work remaining. The North Stand exhibits a certain charm too: its rectangular shape is compromised at one end, rather like Everton’s Goodison Road Stand. (It is unclear why as behind lies simply a car park, as opposed to the residential housing that hampers at Goodison.) Both stands are double tiered but the South Stand more elegantly so. The Fratton End is an example of some of the single-tiered structures built over the last twenty-odd years where clubs have been unable to redevelop, or move away from, their existing ground – or there just isn't the weekly attendance to justify it. In and of themselves they’re rarely much to look at, but they are usually raked more steeply and their roofs cantilevered, which benefits sight-lines greatly.
Portsmouth was competing in the Premiership as recently as 2010 and had intended to relocate and build a new stadium elsewhere in the city. Following the club’s calamitous decline these plans were shelved. Vague ideas concerning the redevelopment of Fratton Park have since been proposed but such schemes are unlikely to come to fruition whilst Portsmouth remains playing in League Two. Yet how many other clubs’ home fans get to enter their ground via a mock Tudor façade dating back to 1898? And despite the business parks to the west (a contemporary conglomeration of hotels, supermarkets, gyms and fast-food establishments) and north (red brick industrial units and warehouses), much of the surrounding area is still residential. There are parks nearby too.
[View from the Milton End. Archibald Leitch's stand is just visible to the left.]
Central Park, not New York but Plymouth. See it on a map, it’s no token recreational space. There is: a library; a clinic; pitch-and-put; 5-a-side; extensive leisure and sporting facilities in the form of the Plymouth Life Centre; allotments; a cemetery; a number of playgrounds; a bowling green; a baseball field; more allotments; ample seating; Home Park – residence of Plymouth Argyle Football Club.
Central Park is trust land, which is how it continues to exist – only leisure related facilities may be raised upon it. Like much of Plymouth, it undulates. Home Park occupies the western apex of the park adjacent to a large open car park that adjoins Outland Road (a component of the A386, which runs from Plymouth Centre all the way out to Dartmoor and ultimately as far as Appledore on Devon’s north coast). To the east, this verdant landscape falls away, meaning the stadium’s profile appears more elevated from its eastern aspect than from any other vantage point. When observed from the higher ground of the suburb of Hartley the impression is of a stadium almost twice its actual size.
In fact Home Park is of modest proportion, always has been. In 2001, the ground underwent redevelopment. The Lyndhurst Stand and Devonport and Barn Park Ends were knocked down and a continuous all-seated U-shaped structure built in its place. This reconstruction contributed little in terms of capacity and was focussed mainly on comfort and improving viewing angles, as well as complying with legislation that applied to the leagues Plymouth was rising toward at the time. Phase 2 of Home Park’s development was to involve replacing the existing Mayflower Stand (another Archibald Leitch effort) with a new multi-tiered grandstand that would have granted an all-seated capacity of 18,500. However, funding hit a wall and the Mayflower as it was survives to this day, restricting the capacity to around 16,000.
Artists’ impressions tend to deceive so it’s hard to say whether Home Park has missed an opportunity or benefitted from a stay of execution. Clad in corrugated aluminium, the Mayflower may be outmoded but it simultaneously remains a far more arresting structure than the Devonport/Lyndhurst/Barn Park combo presently surrounding it. With a shallower rake, Leitch’s grandstand rises only a little higher than the rest of the ground but its two tears impose a much more commanding disparity. Only from the air does it appear insubstantial.
Not to say that progress should be resisted. The old Home Park was a shabby, disjointed affair. None of the roofs stretched as far as the goal-lines; the Barn Park End didn’t even have one. The Devonport End was set at a funny angle and the uncovered junction separating it from the Lyndhurst – the Spion Kop – lacked cohesion. The Lyndhurst – rectilinear, fan-trussed – afforded a little more protection, and actual seats were installed toward the end of the 1980s. The crowd leapt out of them and jeered as Gascoigne’s reputation preceded him.
But for all that the general feeling was one of openness and of free movement (despite the perimeter fencing, which was still deemed reasonable back then). You could look towards the Barn Park End and see Hartley rising up above the dot matrix scoreboard (prone to malfunction) and the trees beyond. Like at Portsmouth – and at Fiorentina to a fanciful degree – there were separate sections you could move around in, with views towards the rest of the ground that were unique to where you stood. Light permeated almost throughout. There was shade if you preferred. Now, aside from your allocated seat, the only place to loiter is within the industrial interior of the stands themselves. Try to imagine what it might be like having a quick pint in your local B&Q’s store room.
[Traces of the old Home Park are still apparent.]
Fratton Park and Home Park feel comfortable in their surroundings. So do many modern stadia, but when you consider that those surroundings are more usually out-of-town industrial estates then maybe that’s not so much comfort. It becomes not so much a question of architecture relating to its surroundings – although it is still that – but finding surroundings worth relating them to. In the case of Portsmouth and Plymouth, if undertaken with sufficient regard, their surroundings could have a positively mitigating effect. My fear is that, when it finally comes to pass, these grounds will be subject to either the cheapest tender or the deranged mind of some clueless burk of an architect determined to leave their mark where it’s not welcome.