Hooligans, heroes and home wins - flashback to the last time Portsmouth won promotion from the third division

Pompey champions on day of crowd trouble at Plymouth - from the Sports Mail, May 1983
Pompey champions on day of crowd trouble at Plymouth - from the Sports Mail, May 1983

Thirty six years ago this month, Portsmouth FC were piecing together a glorious run which would eventually help them to be crowned champions of the old Third Division.

Today, of course, Kenny Jackett's men are aiming to follow in the footsteps of Bobby Campbell's class of 1982/83. League 1 is still the third tier of English football, but no longer the third tier of the Football League. Not since 1992, when Rupert Murdoch started his attempts to rewrite sporting history, was that the case.

Pompey hang on for victory against Exeter - the front page of the Sports Mail

Pompey hang on for victory against Exeter - the front page of the Sports Mail

It goes without saying that so much has changed in almost four decades. The footballing landscape, thanks to the filthy lucre of satellite television, has been radically redrawn. Society-wise, the same is true. Back on February 12, 1983, as Exeter City arrived at Fratton Park, there was one sentence in Pompey's 'The Chimes' programme (24 pages for 40p, compared to today’s £3 for 84 pages) that, with the glorious benefit of hindsight, stands out like the proverbial sore thumb.

It came at the end of the Young Supporters Club column, and it simply said: 'Enjoy the game and behave yourselves.' This message was, if the point needed hammering home, aimed at the youngsters!

It should really have been aimed at some of the late teens or the twentysomethings, or those really old enough to know better, amongst the Blues support - not that they would have listened for one second, mind you - for the early 80s was an era when football hooliganism still had a vice-like grip on our national game. If evidence was needed, Pompey's previous Third Division match, at Millwall, had kicked off at The Den in south London at noon on a Sunday. The programme's editorial mentioned the 2-0 win was 'fortunately trouble-free'.

Imagine that today - Pompey told by the police that a certain league game had to kick off at noon, on the Sabbath, because of the threat of crowd trouble had it taken place at its usual 3pm Saturday afternoon slot. You couldn't blame the Met Police, for previous games between the two clubs had seen regular outbreaks of fighting both inside and outside the stadiums.

Pompey hang on for victory against Exeter - the back page of The News two days after the game

Pompey hang on for victory against Exeter - the back page of The News two days after the game

These were the days the 657 Crew veterans no doubt still fondly remember through misty-eyed reminisces. And these were the days when football attendances were generally decreasing nationwide, and it would get a lot worse, a hell of a lot worse  - horrendous crowd trouble at places like Luton, Chelsea and Birmingham in early 1985, all precursors to the Heysel tragedy at that year's European Cup final - before it ever started to get any better.

Pompey are currently third in League 1 with an average Fratton Park league crowd of over 18,200. Back in February 1983, despite Pompey also lying in third place with 10 home wins out of 12, the average was almost 7,000 fewer - 11,568. The September home game with Millwall attracted just 7,615, and even the fact it was played on a Tuesday night shouldn't be used as an excuse. After all, Pompey's midweek home league game with Gillingham a few weeks later attracted an attendance of over 12,200.

Pompey won all five league games they played in February 1983. After victory at Millwall, club staff worked wonders to clear the Fratton Park pitch of snow - half the Football League games were frozen or snowed off on February 16 - prior to a 3-2 win over Exeter (Alan Biley, Mick Tait and Ernie Howe). Four days later, the Blues journeyed to fellow promotion candidates Lincoln, who had won 12 of their first 13 matches at Sincil Park. Pompey fans could stand on the terraces - remember them? - for £2 or, for an extra 50p, sit down.

Compare this to the recent trip to Oxford United, where visiting fans were asked to pay £24 to sit. Travel prices have also risen exponentially. Back in February 1983, fans could go by train to Lincolnshire for just £8.50 (though they wouldn't get back to Portsmouth until 3.22am). I've just looked the price of the same journey up on Trainline, and it's £108 day return (standard class).

Pompey score one of their three goals against Exeter - from The News

Pompey score one of their three goals against Exeter - from The News

That's for a Saturday trip, though be warned - if you get the 8.45pm from Lincoln you won't get back to Portsmouth until over 16 hours later, at 12.52pm, having had to change at Nottingham and London St Pancras. You would also have to spend the night in Nottingham.

The Pompey v Exeter programme told home fans that they would be welcome in the Lincoln Supporters Club 'before the game, but not after the final whistle'. Again, a sign of the times. Possibly for the best, though, as Pompey romped into top spot thanks to a 3-0 victory (Billy Rafferty 2, Steve Aizlewood) against an Imps side that had only lost once at home in 18 months. And anyway, some had a train to catch ...

A consistent starting XI was, as is often the case, the foundation for Pompey's success. By the time Exeter arrived at Fratton, Biley, Alan Knight, Colin Sullivan and Bobby Doyle had started all 27 league games, while Billy Rafferty had missed a solitary match, Ernie Howe and Mick Tait had missed only two, and Steve Aizlewood just three. That's eight of the starting 11 - no wonder Pompey were going well.

Campbell had used just 16 players by mid-February - Jackett has used 26 so far in 2018/19. One thing that hasn't changed in 36 years, and probably never will, is a settled side generally equates to a successful one.

Fratton Park covered in snow the day before Exeter's visit in February 1983 - from The News

Fratton Park covered in snow the day before Exeter's visit in February 1983 - from The News

Elsewhere in February 1983, Liverpool enjoyed a commanding lead at the top of the top flight - 14 points their margin at one stage - en route to their fourth title in five seasons. Ian Rush, pictured on the front of the Pompey v Exeter programme after appearing at Fratton in a pre-season friendly in August 1982, would end with 24 First Division goals in 34 appearances and the PFA Young Player of the Year award.

Alan Biley was Pompey's answer to Rush, netting 23 league goals in his first season on the south coast - the striker with the Rod Stewart-type haircut enjoying what would be the most prolific season of his career.

Attendance-wise, the average top flight crowd in 1982/83 was just over 20,000 - compared to last season's 38,310. Arsenal had the fifth highest average in 1982/83 with 24,153. Yes, the same Arsenal who have regularly filled a 60,000 Emirates in the last decade. Manchester United's average was 41,552 and Liverpool's 34,836 - compared to their current figures of 74,500 and 52,742 respectively. As I mentioned earlier, the footballing landscape is rather different now compared to 1983.

We have gained far bigger stadia with far better facilities, and today’s grounds are a lot safer. It is unlikely we will ever have to mourn those who perish in a repeat of the Bradford fire, or the Hillsborough tragedy. Against that, modern day football has lost a large chunk of something it will struggle to ever get back - its soul. The camaraderie of the terraces, the noise, the atmosphere.

Only those, like me, who ever knew the joy of standing on a terrace with your mates singing at the top of your voice can fully appreciate what we had, what we lost, and what we’ll never recapture. I’m not saying it’s an unfair swap - you can’t compare singing songs to ensuring people don’t die - but at the same time we need to understand that terracing didn’t cause the harrowing events on a sunny spring Saturday in April 1989 ...

Pompey ended 1982/83 with an average of 14,095, a figure swelled by a season's best 24,354 against promotion rivals Cardiff in mid-March. A further 22,244 would pack into Fratton for their last home match against Walsall. Bit different to the Millwall attendance the previous September …

Portsmouth v Exeter programme, February 1983 - young supporters are asked to behave themselves

Portsmouth v Exeter programme, February 1983 - young supporters are asked to behave themselves

As was the scenes at Plymouth on the final day of the 1982/83 season, when around 10,000 Pompey fans descended on west Devon to celebrate Biley scoring a second half winner to clinch the title. The club’s achievement, sadly, was marred by hundreds of the travelling Blue army causing trouble inside Home Park, including invading the pitch and fighting with the locals. Signs of the times etc.

I’m guessing Pompey fans weren’t welcome in Plymouth’s Supporters Club bar after that game either ….

Portsmouth v Exeter programme, February 1983

Portsmouth v Exeter programme, February 1983