Tuesday, 9 April 2013

39. United Services Portsmouth FC

Spring awakening at United Services Portsmouth FC.
It's all about the history.

The Landport Gate, one of the original entrances to Old Portsmouth, is right next to the big concrete stand at United Services Portsmouth. On September 14th 1805, Nelson passed through this gate on his way to HMS Victory to set sail for the Battle of Trafalgar. It was to be the day of his last walk on dry land before embarkation. At that time, the old city of Portsmouth would have been protected by moats and drawbridges, which, if the drawbridges hadn't been dismantled in the 1860s, would now be under the United Services football pitch (don't tell Time Team, or they'll be there digging a trench before you can whistle Jolly Jack Tar).

Modern history is represented by Portsmouth's first important football team, Royal Artillery FC, who played on what was known as The Men's Pitch at the tail end of the 19th century, reaching the final of the Amateur Cup in 1896. Without the army team, modern Pompey wouldn't have had their nickname or their most famous song - with some historians believing it may be the world's oldest surviving football chant.

The Landport Gate at United Services Portsmouth.
United Services Portsmouth FC 1 (1) v (4) 5 Tadley-Calleva FC
Saturday 6th April 2013
Sydenhams Wessex League Division One
Attendance: 24
Admission: £4
Programme: £1
Colours: All blue v Yellow / black / black
Club shop: No
National Grid reference: SZ6399

Spectacular surroundings and a tractor to admire.
So, Royal Artillery FC played here 120 years ago. They were the first football team in Portsmouth to draw significant crowds (up to 8,000 on occasions). These were the people who first sung the Pompey Chimes.

The United Services Ground (now HMS Temeraire) is a few hundred yards distant from Portsmouth Guildhall. The original town hall was built in 1890. Its clock could be heard chiming from the football ground. It is said that RA's fans would mimic the chimes at 4 o'clock to remind the referee to blow the final whistle. According to the 1900/01 official handbook of Portsmouth FC, the chant went like this:

"Play up Pompey!
Just one more goal!
Make tracks! What ho!
Hallo! Hallo!"

The words have changed over the years, but the tune has remained the same. When RA were harshly forced to disband over claims of professionalism, many of their fans transferred their allegiance to the newly-formed Portsmouth FC, taking what were known as the Town Hall Chimes with them.

Steeplechase water jump with the large concrete stand beyond.
The word "Pompey" was also first used for the Royal Artillery team, eventually transferring to both Portsmouth FC and the city as a whole. The word is first recorded in the Harwich and Dovercourt Free Press on February 25th 1899, when The Gunners travelled to Essex to take on Harwich & Parkeston in an Amateur Cup 3rd round tie:

"Portsmouth RA, who are known in their own neighbourhood as Pompey, have undoubtedly a good record, and their name strikes terror to East Anglian teams, but what's in a name, as Shakespeare has it".

There are several explanations as to where the word "Pompey" originates. The three mentioned in the book Glory Gunners, by Kevin Smith (which is where I have sourced the information about Royal Artillery FC), are:

1. One year, the Royal Artillery were asked to line the route for the queen's birthday parade. They protested that a senior regiment should not be doing this - they should be proudly marching. Lining the route was a job for firemen in Paris for the Bastille Day parade. The next time the football club took to the field, they were teased with the cry of "Here come the Pompiers!"

2. The French warship Le Pompee was the guardship for Portsmouth Harbour when Britain and France were at war.

3. A group of sailors who climbed Pompey's Pillar in Egypt in 1781 became known as "Pompey's Boys".

I have seen other explanations - one had something to do with a talkative parrot. I suspect that no-one will ever know the word's origination with any degree of certainty.

The view from daffodil knoll.
Finding your way in to the United Services ground isn't easy. The football pitch is visible from St George's Road: I could see Tadley-Calleva warming up at twenty to three from the pavement near the Landport Gate. You need to walk all the way to the far side of the naval playing fields to the entrance of HMS Temeraire, where the sentries at the barrier will let you in if you say you're going to the match.

From here, walk to the left, through the car park, up a short flight of steps, around the large building on your right, down another flight of steps and through an open gate to the athletics/football stadium.

At two minutes to three, United Services' manager, Bob Brady, wanders around the stadium collecting entrance money and handing out programmes to the attendees. Yes, that's right, the home team's manager does this as the match is kicking off! Not something that Guy Whittingham has to worry about! Bob also lets you know where to go for tea at half-time "although you'll have to make it yourself!"

Floodlights taller than "The Lipstick" skyscraper!
I'm not sure if Bob was back at the dugouts by the time that Tadley-Calleva had scored the first goal of the match at 3:01. He may still have been busy selling programmes at 3:05 when the Callevans scored their second with Services all at sea. Goal number three was scored at 3:08, but this time it was for the home side - Mark Robinson had the ball funnelled through to him in the right-hand channel, from where he calmly skimmed the ball beyond Tadley's keeper to make it 1-2.

It was sink or swim time for Services after 15 minutes, as Tadders went 3-1 up with a torpedo from the edge of the box. But they couldn't turn the tide, as the marauding away team scored their fourth after 28 minutes, Grant Powell sidefooting home from six yards from a cross from the right, just where the old moat used to be.

4-1 to Tadley at half-time, an ocean of difference between the two sides. A rum do for Services, as they shipped goal after goal at a rate of knots during the half. The first half had to be written off as water under the bridge. It would be all hands on deck for the second period.

A rare attack for United Services.
United Services were formed in 1962 as Portsmouth Royal Navy FC, but a few years ago, the option of playing for the club was thrown open to members of the other services, plus civilians, so in 2004/05, they changed their name to United Services Portsmouth (the same as the well-established rugby club which plays nearby).

Before 2012/13 started, the naval players in the squad would have hoped this season would be plain sailing; the army members would have been gunning for top spot; and the air force would be looking to be flying high in the table. It hasn't worked out that way, promotion chances wrecked early on, with the club long since adrift in mid-table.

As the ref blew his whistle for the start of the second half, I heard the four o'clock chimes ringing out from the Guildhall clock. I fancied I could hear the ghosts of the old Royal Artillery fans singing along with their original Town Hall Chimes, but the sound was soon drowned out by the heavy traffic. I listened out for the Pompey crowd, who can be very raucous indeed, but by all accounts, their 0-0 draw with Stevenage, taking place at the same time as this match, was rather uninspiring. The surrounding background noises from the thousands of vehicles streaming in to and out of the nearby shopping centre would have made it hard to hear the Pompey crowd, even if they'd just gone 4-1 up against Saints, virtually ensuring their rival's relegation (ah, those were the days...!).

Tadley-Calleva scored their fifth, and the final goal of the game halfway through the second half, a hat-trick goal for Daniel Vickers, with a chip over the keeper, as delicate as any of the spring flowers blooming around the ground in the warm sunshine. The Magnificent Callevans then partook of a post-match huddle most cordial in the shadow of the Landport Gate, before setting off on their trusty steeds back to their north Hampshire homes for a hearty meal of venison washed down with a flagon of mead or two (possibly).

A train approaches Portsmouth Harbour Station during the second half.
An exceedingly pleasant day, which was made even more marvellous by a pre-match visit to Southsea's new record shop, Pie & Vinyl. Two teeny-weeny rooms, the first containing six small tables and a tiny kitchen serving up a selection of superb pies - the best I've ever tasted! The back room is crammed with vinyl (and a few CDs). On one wall is a stuffed fox, on another is an owl, checking your choices with its serious eyes. I thought I saw it blink with satisfaction when I picked up my shiny new Seapony album. That's one indiepoppin' owl!

Two more grounds to visit this season!


  1. You were right about all the history at that ground, seems like it's played a huge and until now largely unsung role in Pompey's footballing past. I must say that it's always struck me as a 'just how do you get into it' sort of place from driving past it and that is what's put me off in the past. The one luxury of non-league usually being the ability to park next to the ground - though in Winchester I used the park & ride as I fancied a wander round, but almost ended up missing the match due to taking a wrong turning.

    How does it feel to be so close to your goal? I hope you've got something else lined up as it will be a shame for the blog to end.

  2. A lot of people might be put off this ground by the athletics track around the perimeter, but it doesn't bother me. The view from the stand is terrific anyway, which makes up for the distance away from the pitch.

    I went to Saturday's match by train, which negated the need to find a parking spot - daughter and friend came with me and disappeared off to Gunwharf Quays whilst I was at the match. The entrance isn't obvious, but once you know where it is, the sentries are friendly enough and will let you in. At least one Tadley-Calleva follower couldn't find his way in, according to a phone conversation I overheard. He must have missed at least two goals by the time he arrived in the stand!

    Next season...I keep changing my mind! At the moment, I think I'll carry on. I'll do some revisits, either to favourite grounds or to one or two that I didn't do justice to the first time around. I would also like to see some places over our borders in Dorset, Sussex, Wiltshire, etc. I may give myself a rule that if I do head out of the county, there has to be a Hampshire team playing as the away side...I don't know yet! I'll decide in July/August.

  3. I'm impressed with how many nautical puns you can get in one report!! I enjoyed the report and history lesson, keep up the good work.

  4. Thanks for the compliment, Jet! Much appreciated! I've just started writing about Aldershot Town...you wouldn't believe how tempting it is to splatter army puns around on that one! I'll try to tone it down though.