When my dad passed away in early 2020 my sister and I drove around Portsmouth and stopped off at places that were special to Pops or us as a family.
We visited our old family house in North End, parts of Milton where Dad had grown up and then stopped at one of my dad’s favourite places. Fratton Park, the home of Portsmouth Football Club.
I first went to watch Pompey with my dad when I was three years old. It was a pre-season friendly against Tottenham Hotspur (which we lost) and I can clearly remember standing on my own at the perimeter fence (parenting was different in the 1980’s), how scared I was when Pompey scored, and our post-match drink in the Baffin’s pub with my Uncle Jim.
When my sister and I were born at St Mary’s hospital in Portsmouth, Dad took joy in taking us to the window so that we could see fortress Fratton for the first time. Pops remained a devoted fan all his life.
When Emma and I drove around on our mini tour I found it hard to even look at the stadium, it was just too painful, so we didn’t stay very long at all.
Although I am not a talented footballer I really used to enjoy going to matches with Dad when we could. Dad worked for himself and often worked weekends, but when I was around eleven or twelve years old suddenly Dad’s schedule opened-up a bit and we could both go together on Saturday afternoons.
I am not sure what prompted our first visit of this era, but I can still remember parking up in Fratton, walking with Dad through the football lanes, paying at the turnstile and then finding a bar to lean on in the North Terrace near the centre circle.
The match was amazing and Pompey at the time had some spectacular young players. Darren Anderton who later went on to play for England dazzled on the wing. John Beresford was exceptional, and Martin Kuhl (the captain) scored an epic 30-yard screamer, the final score was 4-0 to Pompey.
It was a great day!
(To fact check the date I just searched for the match on the web, found it on Facebook and guess what, Dad had liked the video memory 😊).
This match kicked off a routine for Dad and me where we would go to matches and enjoy each other’s company. This is where we started to hang-out with each other and in many ways, I began learning how to conduct myself as a young man.
The 1991-1992 season had an epic FA cup run and some amazing memories while the 1992-93 campaign was my favourite with the combination of Guy Whittingham and Paul Walsh nearly taking us to promotion. Singing post-match in the football lanes with my dad and hundreds of fans remains one of my most favourite childhood memories.
When I turned 16, I took a Saturday job, but would still go to matches when I could. I even called in sick once to march from Portsmouth Guildhall to Fratton Park to protest the risk of Pompey going into administration. I think this was around 1997 and my Dad was thrilled when Meridian TV zoomed in on my dancing in the Fratton End as we chanted ‘Alan Balls Blue and White Army’. My boss at Argos (Ruth) was less thrilled, but thankfully saw the funny side. I owed her a few extra shifts after that.
I have many amazing football memories with Dad, not least when we won the FA Cup at Wembley. But ultimately, I went to football with Dad less as I got older. Instead, I prioritised karate. Either training or competing.
Dad knew karate was ‘my thing’ and respected my choice, he was also very proud of my commitment and progress.
Despite my dad’s health challenges, he became a season ticket holder and along with his godson (Naughty Steve – Jims son) and their friends from the Red Lion pub he remained a matchday regular as long as he could. To everyone in the pub Dad became ‘Uncle Dave’.
About five or six years ago I joined Dad in the Red Lion with my son Oscar who was around five or six at the time. We had a great day and Dad was so proud to have a picture taken on the Fratton End.
‘Look at this Matty….. three generations at Fratton Park’. ‘Me, my boy and my boy’s boy’!
For a long time, this was the last match I attended. I cannot remember the score, but I know the opposition was Bournemouth and that Pompey lost. The prevailing memory (as always) was the time with Dad.
I haven’t wanted to return to Fratton Park. The idea of watching a match without Pops was just too painful. For me I struggled to see any joy in it.
But then last week my son came to me and said:
‘Dad, can we please go to Fratton Park on Tuesday. Kaelum and his friends are going, and I’d like to go too, would you please take me?’
Instantly I said no as I had to teach my classes, but the look on my son’s face as he slumped and then walked away forced me to reconsider.
I messaged my assistant Harry and asked him if he could cover my classes which he could. I then committed to buying tickets and going to the match.
I wasn’t looking forward to it!
After Dad had passed away my Mum gave me all his replica Pompey shirts. I found this really-hard, and, in all honesty, I hadn’t even looked at them. Instead, I had stored them at the bottom of my ward-robe in a carrier bag.
On the day of the match Mum messaged me and said, ‘you must wear one of your dads’ shirts, he would have liked that’. I understood Mums perspective but wasn’t sure I could go through with that. To me it was significant enough that I was going to the match. I wasn’t sure I could handle any extra emotional stimulus.
As the day went on my son grew more and more excited. I grew more anxious. Part of me even hoped that Harrys train would be cancelled, and I would therefore have to teach. I distracted myself as best I could but soon the time came to get ready for the match. I grabbed the bag from the wardrobe and picked a shirt without a collar without studying it too closely and put it on. Despite my concerns I agreed with Mum. Dad would have liked me to wear one of his shirts.
Oscar is a kind and sensitive lad, and he often senses when people are upset or pensive. I decided we would pop into the Red Lion and have a drink in Dad’s honour. Oscar turned to me and said, ‘are you okay Dad?’
‘No’ I said, ‘but that’s okay son, I’m just getting my head around everything’.
Oscar smiled at me and gave me a hug and then after finishing our drinks we walked to the train station. The irony wasn’t lost on me when I read the Samaritans poster that faced me on the platform.
‘It’s okay to not be okay’.
When we got to the stadium a lot had changed. The turnstiles now are digital and read QR codes on entry, the toilets were less disgusting than I remember, and the new Milton end is nearing completion.
But Fratton Park was established in 1898 and most of the stadium remains mostly the same as when I was a child.
As I took a seat with my son, my nephew, and his friends it took all of my resolve to not burst into tears. But I managed to steel myself due to something that had happened in the pub.
As I sat having a drink with Oscar we decided it would be a good idea to have a couple of photos and that one of them should be me in the shirt to send to my Mum. Oscar took a pic of the back of the shirt and when I looked at the image on my phone I discovered that the shirt I was wearing was printed with the words ‘Pops 2’!
From memory I think this had been a gift from sister to Dad when he had two grandchildren. But for me it struck a different chord.
Like me, my Dad was very close to his father and they used to go to Fratton Park together. Unfortunately, my Grandad Richard passed away from throat cancer when Dad was only thirteen years old. Dad missed him terribly, but instead of being sad at the football had enjoyed the memories and chosen to recreate experiences for me, his son.
He would tell me about riding on the bar of his Dads bike, them chaining it up at the ‘boiler makers hump’ and then watching the matches together. As a kid I found joy in these stories, and I realised that my son would find joy in the memories I could share of matchdays with pops.
I realised on Tuesday night that by not going to the football I had delayed some grief and acceptance.
I needed to go to the match and miss my Dad and appreciate my memories. But perhaps most importantly it was my time to accept that my role has changed.
I am no longer the son. I am the Dad ……. I am a Pops too!
My role now is to be the mentor and help my son and daughter grow and develop, just as my Dad did for me and my sister.
Last night I taught my normal classes at the Taro Centre in Petersfield, and I was keen to reflect on the night before at the football and the way I felt after the match and quality time with Oscar.
As always, I drew comparisons with Karate.
I am the Sensei in my classes, I have been the student and I enjoyed that stage very much. Whilst I strive to constantly learn and improve, I have realised that now my priority in the dojo is the students. How they feel, perform, and develop!
August is always a tough month at the clubs as so many people are away on holiday. The atmosphere changes, its not the same. But I now understand that lingering on that is me being selfish.
It is not the same FOR ME!.
When working my priority must be the students in my charge and NOT how I feel!
Tuesday was a big night. It helped me understand my role as Dad better and ultimately that of Sensei too.
Let’s push on together and make new memories out of respect for the joy we felt creating our own.
Karate is a generation game.