Watching Football in a Socially Distanced Stadium Is a Reminder of What The Game Is Really About

Dan Choppen
·7-min read
Photo credit: Popperfoto - Getty Images
Photo credit: Popperfoto - Getty Images

From Esquire

For a Christmas present when I was nine years old, my dad surprised me with a pair of season tickets for Portsmouth FC, our local team. It was a big wad of tickets with the details of each game embossed in gold lettering; Willy Wonka’s promotional gimmicks had nothing on this. Dad kept the ticket stack in a neat little pouch in his bedside table with his pants, socks and an old WWII hunting knife. When we set off for Pompey’s home ground, Fratton Park, as with his passport before we went on holiday, he would check five times to ensure they were still safely in his pocket.

When it comes to routine, my dad is stubborn (he has had porridge and half a grapefruit for breakfast every morning for the last 20 years with no exception) so match days brought out the stickler in him. We would listen to the pre-match build-up on 107.4FM The Quay as we drove to the stadium. We would park on the quiet, residential Rosetta Road. If there were no spaces then it was Bertie Road, which runs parallel to Rosetta Road. And if that was full we would start to panic.

Photo credit: Dan Choppen
Photo credit: Dan Choppen

Then we’d pop into the corner shop at the end of Rosetta Road to get snacks for the game. I would fill up a small cardboard bowl of sweets to be weighed on the counter. Dad had a large appetite for liquorice chews, which I would include knowing he would ask for them at half-time. On the way home after the match, stuck in traffic on the Eastern Road, we would listen to 107.4FM The Quay again, and share the remaining drops of instant coffee that he’d prepared in his leaking flask.

Dad hated leaving a game early. We did it once against Leyton Orient (a team two divisions below Pompey) in the FA Cup in 2002, when I was nine. We were losing 3–1. It was nearing the 85th minute and after he’d released some expletives in disappointment — at football games was the only time I heard my dad swear — we hurried out the stand, dad dragging me by the hand hoping not to be seen by the remaining fans who would stick it out to the very end. As we left through the stadium gates, we heard the away fans celebrating again, making it a 4–1 loss. We both looked at each other in dismay — I felt like a traitor and I knew my dad felt the same. We never left a game early again.

Having this mentality has made it even harder missing games. Since leaving home and moving to London, Dad and I haven’t been able to go to as many matches together as we’d like. Dad has managed to hold onto our original tickets by sharing them with a group of family friends, alternating between home games. If I couldn’t make it, he would sometimes take his father, who turned 85 this year and still follows Pompey. But if he was unavailable dad would just go on his own, which would make me feel terrible.

When football grounds closed to the public during the first national lockdown, Dad and I did our best to recreate the spirit of going to Fratton Park. When restrictions were eased, I would drive down from my flat in west London with a small selection of Pompey shirts for dad to pick from and we would sit in the garden two metres apart, with the TV turned to face out the window. I can’t remember when and why we sold our old Pompey shirts, but I have recently started to rebuild our collection, in adult-only sizes this time.

Photo credit: Robin Jones
Photo credit: Robin Jones

In early December, the UK government’s tier system meant some clubs could let a small number of home fans back into stadia for the first time since March; dad entered the club ticket raffle and won tickets for Portsmouth versus Peterborough. Pompey have fallen a long way in the decade since 2010, when I was 16. That year, dad and I travelled to Wembley to watch Pompey lose to Chelsea 1–0 in the FA Cup final. That same season saw Pompey relegated from the Premier League; they’re now in League One, following further relegations and financial problems which meant the club had to be bought out by the fans. But this season Pompey are doing all right, and the match against Peterborough was not far off a top-of-the-table clash.

My dad and I drove down together from our family home in Havant, a town just outside Portsmouth, with the radio on. We parked on Rosetta Road and stopped off at the corner shop. As I put our excessive selection of liquorice on the counter, the shop owner did a double-take. “Blimey, I haven’t seen you two for a while,” he said. On the way to the ground, the local pubs were shut and there was no stream of fans flowing down the roads surrounding Fratton Park, like blood drawn to a beating heart. We walked the near-deserted streets both hoping that the concession stands would be open for our usual half-time chicken balti pie. They weren’t.

Fratton Park has an official seated capacity of 21,100, but on a match day it can feel more like 50,000, such is the ferocity of the home faithful. The largest stand, the Fratton End, looms over the pitch, dictating the mood of the match. Rival teams have openly admitted fearing playing away at Pompey; the fans sit almost on the pitch, just a couple of feet away from the players. The South Stand has a five-foot-deep trench outlining the end of the pitch: the only thing stopping a straying player from hitting the concrete below are the hands of the Pompey fans — and they don’t always oblige.

Inside the stadium on a Saturday in a Tier 2 city, it was like a school reunion in a ghost town. The weather didn’t help: a fierce, cold wind swept in rain from the Solent that hammered down on the tin roof of the North Stand. We could normally get away with minimal layering when watching winter games, but the near-empty stadium denied us the warmth of a crowd. There were bare rows surrounding us and large chunks of the South Stand were unfilled. We looked over our shoulders and saw that other fans had been given our regular seats.

Photo credit: Robin Jones
Photo credit: Robin Jones

It began the way all Pompey games begin, with the players walking down the tunnel as “Portsmouth” by Mike Oldfield played out of the speakers. It felt good, and a bit ridiculous (as it always does) to clap along in unison to the sound of jolly flutes. Compared to the normal Fratton Park experience it felt intimate, the players more vulnerable, as though they could hear every chant, every insult. It made Peterborough appear nervous, but perhaps Pompey thrived on this. Thanks to a looping header from Jack Whatmough and a Tom Naylor 25-yard rocket into the top corner, Pompey safely won the match 2–0.

We walked back in the rain, along our usual route past the Esso garage, the Milton Arms, the cemetery and onto Rosetta Road. We agreed it would have been annoying to come all this way and not get three points. But I think we both lied. Any reason to go would have been good enough. We dumped our wet jackets in the car boot, turned on the radio and listened in silence to the post-match analysis. Dad offered me the last of the liquorice.

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