Portsmouth decade-high demand puts Fratton Park future under microscope

Fratton Park's biggest attendance for seven years witnessed Pompey's triumph over Sunderland. Picture: Joe Pepler/Digital South
Fratton Park's biggest attendance for seven years witnessed Pompey's triumph over Sunderland. Picture: Joe Pepler/Digital South
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New Year’s Day marked Pompey extending their dominance at League One’s summit.

It also signified the first time Fratton Park has averaged attendances higher than during the Premier League heyday.

In terms of league fixtures, the Blues presently average 18,273 at home.

That currently surpasses the 18,249 registered over the 2009-10 campaign – Pompey’s last in the top flight.

The upsurge has been gradual yet consistent, with home gates rising in each of the last five seasons.

With eyes now fixed upon a Championship return in 2019, the famous old ground is operating at 92.78 per cent capacity.

The future of Fratton Park has long been deliberated. Considering the club’s upward trajectory, resolving the issue has become even more crucial.

Chairman Michael Eisner’s preference, driven to a degree by taking on board supporter input, is to remain at Pompey’s 120-year-old residence.

Yet four months have passed since Tornante’s purported August 2018 deadline for the unveiling of their stadium vision. There is willing, but remains a distinct lack of detail.

In the meantime, table-topping Pompey’s average crowd this term exceeds half of the Championship’s clubs.

Additionally, the visit of Sunderland three days before Christmas attracted Fratton Park’s biggest attendance since December 2011 against Southampton.

Demand is rapidly threatening to outstrip supply, with the tantalising prospect of Championship football on the horizon.

Mark Catlin, however, has assured fans the Fratton Park blueprint is progressing.

‘I think we have made clear the owners’ preferences in regards of our future stadium thinking,’ said Pompey’s chief executive.

‘As we all know, this has been a path trodden many times by previous regimes throughout the club’s history. Unfortunately – whether remaining at Fratton Park or looking at alternative sites on or around the island – there are no simple solutions.

‘Securing the long-term future of the football club in regards of its stadium is something that cannot be rushed and cannot be pressured by supporters.

‘Short-term thinking results in short-term results and our owners are the polar opposite of that process.

‘All I can assure supporters is that, behind the scenes, it takes up the majority of our time and has Michael and the board’s input at every level.

‘But we cannot be held hostage to timescales we feel pressured to put out to appease fans.

‘Judge us by our actions not our words. When we say we are going to do something then we will do it, as will become clear over future months and years.’

Fratton Park’s present capacity is 19,669, an increase of around 750 following essential safety work carried out in recent summers, initiated during fan ownership and built upon last summer.

The lack of infrastructure investment by previous regimes had taken its toll, with reduction in seating a direct consequence.

During Premier League residence, the October 2009 visit of Spurs generated 20,821 – Pompey’s largest crowd within those seven top-flight seasons.

Coincidentally, that 2009-10 campaign also yielded the Blues’ lowest average attendance over that period.

The current League One season has produced four games attracting higher attendances than the visit of Chelsea in that final Premier League campaign.

In fact, all but two of this term’s league crowds have surpassed the 17,826 present when Manchester City won 1-0 at Fratton Park through Emmanuel Adebayor’s header in August 2009.

Incidentally, the only 2009-10 home fixtures whose attendances are yet to be matched this season are Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and, of course, Spurs. All broke the 20,000-plus barrier.

Following relegation to the Championship, Pompey averaged 15,044 in Steve Cotterill’s maiden season which resulted in 16th place. Current crowds are a staggering 21.46 per cent higher.

The trend for escalating Fratton Park attendances can be pinpointed upon the accession of fan ownership in April 2013 – and removal of Portpin and Balram Chainrai.

Home attendances leapt from 12,232 during an abject 2012-13 season to 15,460 the following campaign, signifying a rise of 26.39 per cent, despite finishing 13th in League Two.

We are presently witnessing Fratton Park’s best crowds for almost a decade – since the 2008-09 season (19,830).

Back to the present day, it would be erroneous to suggest Tornante are not exploring ways to increase Fratton Park’s capacity.

In addition to consulting London architects over a possible reconstruction of the ground, the club have been hindered by existing issues.

It is understood, during the last six months, Pompey have strived to carry out essential maintenance work to an aging South stand and its leaking roof.

However, to date, they have been unable to obtain permission from all residents in the adjacent Carisbrooke Road to allow property access to work on the back of the stand.

Elsewhere, there remain problems in relation to the substation situated behind the North stand, in particular its power cables stretching underneath Specks Lane behind the Milton end.

The location of such a important electrical source in the city threatens to hinder potential work to either stand, with the Milton end, in particular, regarded as a priority.

Still, while solutions continue to be probed, Fratton Park is heading for another sell-out for the visit of Blackpool on January 12.

The matches with Luton, Plymouth and Sunderland have officially been declared full houses this season.

A return to the Championship next season would bring with it increased travelling numbers among the majority of visiting clubs, with the statutory 2,800 tickets available.

Yet the current inability to be able to expand capacity in home sections remains a problem.

Presently, the Blues’ average attendance eclipses Swansea, Ipswich, Bolton, Blackburn, Reading, QPR, Millwall, Hull and Wigan among others in the Championship.

Incidentally, Paul Cook’s Wigan have so far this term topped 14,799 – within a stadium possessing a capacity of 25,133.

In the meantime, Pompey have promotion to earn and a return to the stage they last occupied eight seasons ago.

Yet, off the pitch, they have long been producing Championship quality.