John Westwood is Pompey in the flesh, a man dancing defiantly in the jaws of an abyss set to swallow football.
By Colin Farmery
Photography Neil Bedford
This article first appeared in Issue 6 of The Green Soccer Journal, March 2014
‘The necessity of living in the midst of the diabolical citizens of Portsmouth, is a real and unavoidable calamity. It is a doubt to me if there is such another collection of demons upon the whole earth.’
John Anthony Portsmouth Football Club Westwood — to give him his full name, changed by deed poll in 1989 — recites Sir General James Wolfe’s 1758 formula with a mixture of pride and relish, his infectious, cackling laugh sandpapered by the coarse grade regular fags and booze do best.
You see, Portsmouth people — an island city people — do see themselves as something of a breed apart. In short, in Portsmouth they fight first and ask questions afterwards. Then, chances are, they’ll be your best mate. Forever.
And, as Westwood adds, paraphrasing the late, venerated Pompey manager Alan Ball, ‘People go to war from here’.
So they do. D-Day, the Falklands and, more recently, the Gulf conflict are indelibly stamped on Pompey psyche; the Round Tower, which guards the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour, having counted out the warships and counted them back.
Yet it is no irony that Argentinian midfielder Andres D’Alessandro — whose daughter ended up being born in the city — endeared himself to Pompey hearts in 2006. It was his cultured left foot, loaned from Wolfsburg, which masterminded the club’s Premier League great escape that year. Why, they might have even given back the Malvinas in return. Well, perhaps not…
On the face of it, Westwood, 51 this year, fulfils Wolfeʼs stereotype. From the brim of his blue and white checked top hat, to the tips of his oversized clown boots, via an impressive array of tattoos, jewellery, badges and Pompey scarf loin cloth, which barely covers his modesty, he cuts a unique figure in English football culture. And I haven’t even mentioned the bell and bugle he is rarely parted from.
Pompey’s media-anointed ‘Number One Fan’ provokes a reaction. It is rarely indifference. By his own admission he is invariably in some stage of inebriation on a match-day, so it’s little wonder that at first sight many a rival fan, or, more to the point, the forces of law and order, will have to work hard to suppress the instinct to either fight or take flight.
And Pompey, Westwood’s venerable football club, bearing a recent past synonymous with unpaid charities, ripped-off local businesses and a debt not far off the gross domestic product of a small country, is a club quite like no other.
Like Clough and Taylor, to the outsider — and most are when it comes to Portsmouth — Westwood and Pompey seem always to come as a pair, joined at the heart, if not the hip.
As with all stereotypes, while there is a kernel of truth, the reality is inevitably more nuanced. The bulimic boom-and-bust image which still stalks Pompey and puked them up by 2014 in the nether reaches of League 2, England’s fourth tier, is more accurately a tale of intrigue and plot as international business magnates, albeit second and third-rate, played out a turf war by proxy, aided and abetted by a lax regulatory regime unbefitting such a cash-rich sport as Premier League football.
An inconvenient narrative for sure, as one of the alleged architects of Pompey’s rise and calamitous fall Harry Redknapp might put it, but breaking the mould is never easy.
So it is with Westwood.
For a start, Portsmouth’s Number One Son — Brunel and Charles Dickens aside, of course — is not from Portsmouth at all. In fact, it is only recently he has lived in the city; rents in mid-Hampshire are prohibitive — but that promises to only be a brief sojourn.
Westwood was born in Liss and brought up in the sleepy Hampshire market town of Petersfield, 16 miles distant from Portsmouth, nestling in the foothills of the South Downs.
It’s here that Westwood plies his trade by day in the family antiquarian bookshop, established by his father Frank in the late 1950s. Since his death in 2006, Westwood has taken on the burden of bringing the business into the 21st century.
As he gives me a whistle-stop guided tour of the rabbit-warren premises, he rattles off an impressive litany of planned works, including sub-lets and flat conversions — one of which will ultimately be where he calls home — to turn a declining trade into something which will stand a fighting chance of surviving and, perhaps, thriving in the future.
Jekyll and Hyde doesn’t begin to do it justice. This is Westwood in his own words.
So John, Pompey. Where did it all begin?
Back in 1976 I was at school and the Scummers [Portsmouth vernacular for local rivals Southampton] were in the Cup Final. Other friends supported teams like Liverpool, Arsenal and Man United, and they used to take the mickey out of my mate who was a Pompey fan [freshly relegated to the old third division] and I thought, ‘Hold on a minute, that’s my local team’, so I started to support them. The first game I went to was on Boxing Day 1976 and we won 1-0 against Brighton with 32,000 at Fratton Park. I was just blown away by the atmosphere and I knew from that moment I belonged.
Can you remember where you were in the ground?
I was under the South Stand when there used to be a terrace there. I loved everything about it; the humour, the passion and the football, of course, which to me was fantastic even though we weren’t doing well. It was the whole occasion: the tribalism, the noise of the Fratton End [the popular end of the stadium], the smell of the Bovril and cigarettes. But most of all it was the belonging to something.
What did you belong to?
Portsmouth Football Club. That’s what.
You weren’t a Portsmouth boy though?
No. No. I was from Petersfield. The sad thing from my point of view is my brother and sister were born in St Mary’s [the some-might-say ironically named maternity hospital which overlooks Fratton Park] but I was born in Liss. My dad came down from London in the late 1950s to set up the shop, but no one in my family was really into football.
So pin down the essence of what you had joined?
It was a tribe. A gang. A passion I suppose. All this passion was directed at the players on the pitch. Even though there were 32,000 in the ground we were at one. All willing that team to win. It was everything to me. I had been a bit of a wayward teenager with no real direction in life, but all of a sudden I knew this was what I wanted. I had something to focus on. Of course, the football culture was totally different in those days [the 1970s and 1980s]. There was also the danger of going to football. There were some frightening blokes who went to games I can tell you.
Where was the most frightening place you went?
Millwall, without a doubt. I managed to go to a game once where Pompey fans couldn’t get tickets. I was stood on the old side terrace at Cold Blow Lane and you were looking at people, eyeing them up, winking at them if you saw someone from Pompey. This bloke came up to me and said ‘Are you Pompey?’ I thought I recognised him and I said, ‘Yes’. We ended up having a fight behind the stand. I remember punching a wall twice skinning my knuckles before getting away. He and his mates spent the rest of the game looking for me.
Did you go for the trouble?
[Laughs] No, not me. I couldn’t fight my way out of a paper bag, but I used to get beaten up at away games two or three times a season. You did that for your club. I liked standing on the Fratton End with all the geezers and I suppose I did enjoy watching the fights as well as the football.
“I couldn’t fight my way out of a paper bag, but I used to get beaten up at away games two or three times a season”
What about the fashion thing the so-called crews had in the 1980s? Was that you?
You mean the Pringle jumpers and stuff? No. I was what they called a scarfer. I loved my club and the way I showed it was by wearing twelve scarves to every game.
So you could say your unique fashion sense started young then?
[Laughs] I suppose you could. I never went with the mob. The funny thing is, though, they were as much Pompey as I was. They loved their football, but they were also fighting for the city. At the time, the 6:57 [the name of Pompey’s hooligan firm of the time] meant Pompey had a bit of a reputation. They weren’t bullies, but if someone wanted a fight they’d give them one. In the 1980s you had things like the miners’ strike. The country was an aggressive place. Not just in football.
What are your politics?
[Reflects for a moment] I’m a Tory. Do you know why? Even though they reflect my political view it was because they were blue and white. [Laughing] I couldn’t do Labour as they are red…
Really? But what about Thatcher and her less-than-cosy relationship with football?
I’m no supporter of her. She blatantly discriminated against football fans and is the direct cause of football fans having fewer legal rights than they should.
And the Premier League?
The first couple of years were fun, beating the big teams now and again, but I got bored with it in the end. It didn’t fit in with the game I’d been brought up on in the lower leagues. It used to be the working-class game for the working-class man, but the Premier League has made the game too corporate and money-oriented. I have mates who stopped going in the Premier League years and are coming back to watch Pompey now they’re back in the lower leagues.
Football needs a dose of Socialism you could say…
Without a doubt. The game needs to find its roots again. Look at the owners of Cardiff and Hull. What they are doing is morally wrong. Why should they change what the customer wants? You need to understand what a football club means to the people in its community. It is a powerful thing.
Down at Pompey we get 15,000 people every game. Think what that means to the pubs, shops, restaurants and taxi firms in the city. And then there’s the work clubs do in the community. I’ve helped Pompey in the Community [the charity which runs PFC community projects] and I’ve seen the power football has to help so-called troublesome kids learning. I recall once reading a passage of out a book in an assembly. I was in the canteen afterwards and one of the teachers told me about a problem kid they had who wouldn’t read who now wanted to as he’d seen me doing it and thought it was cool. I’ve heard since that he reads all the time now. I got a great sense of pride and fulfilment out of that. I don’t think a lot of the owners understand the real power they have. In Portsmouth we have the Dockyard and the football club. It is the heartbeat of the city. It’s what makes people tick.
Tell me about your job. How does that fit with your football persona?
The two complement one another. The book trade is quite eccentric and old-fashioned, but I’m lucky to have two passions; my hobby and my work. I’ve grown up with books. However the trade is in decline. There used to be 1,200 second-hand and antiquarian books shops — now there’s 200, and most of them are owned by people who are about to retire. It’s Jekyll and Hyde perhaps, but it is good.
Have your worlds ever collided?
After I bought the clown boots off the internet from the USA, they were delivered to the shop and I thought, ‘I have to try these on’. There was no one around, so I put them on, while still wearing my suit, when suddenly a customer came in. I had to call through to get another member of staff to see to them. Once I was just leaving the shop to go to Bournemouth for a game and my mum said ‘Behave yourself’, and this well-dressed woman in a big hat with feathers — I think she was Lady Something-or-Other — looked up from a book and said, ‘Don’t do that. We want to be reading about you in the papers again’, and laughed. People in book trade are by and large prim and proper but they’ve accepted me. A lot are football fans themselves. They think it’s nice to have a member who’s a bit different, with the tattoos and all that.
What about your family? How do you fit them in?
I have a brother who’s five years older. He went into bookbinding and now works at Windsor Castle. He lives in a house just inside the entrance. My sister has learning difficulties. She’s two years older than me. When she was born they said she’d never walk and talk, but she helps out now and again at the shop and has a great time. When you see her with her friends though it makes you realise whatever troubles you have are nothing really. It’s humbling.
Are you married? Children?
I’ve been divorced for 17 years and I have a daughter who’s 19 and a son who’s 22. They’ve all accepted my passion, but I never let the football come before my kids. I work five, six, sometimes seven days a week and up to 18 hours a day so I can justify going to football and make time for them.
Football’s cost me a lot in certain respects. It’s caused problems with the police. I am flamboyant and I think they think by kicking me out it would send a message to other fans.
Tell us some examples.
Arsenal was always a bit of a problem ground for me. Once I was told to take my hat off there in the first half, even though no one was complaining. I put it on again at half time and the police waded in chucked me out. I got told by a police contact they’d had a meeting beforehand and decided to give me the treatment. One of the funniest though was after a game at Sheffield Wednesday when I got accused of kidnap and robbery.
Doesn’t sound much fun to me…
We went back in our minibus [Westwood has a regular entourage who accompany him to matches, home and away] to a pub we know in Nottingham afterwards. The next day I got a call from the Hampshire Police. A DC had come down from Nottingham. I was being charged as a man had claimed we had picked him up off the street in the bus, driven him round for a couple of hours and made him empty his cashpoint. I was banged up in the cells for five hours. At the time my dad was on a life support machine, so it was a bit stressful to say the least. I had to go up the following week for an ID parade, but by then the bloke admitted he made it up as he tried to explain to his wife why he’d spent all his money. Oh, and there was the incident at Middlesbrough too…
I was charged with being drunk in a football ground. I was bailed and couldn’t drink alcohol up to two hours before a game until the trial. At Arsenal, that ground again, the police tried to nick me for breaching the conditions, but that got thrown out as I was genuinely drinking water. When the original incident came to court the District Judge was brilliant. The CCTV footage of me in the cells clearly showed I wasn’t drunk and from the ground it disproved the arresting officer’s account. He said I was ‘unsteady on my feet’, for one thing. The judge said as she watched the video: ‘I’m not surprised, the gentleman was wearing oversized clown boots on a steep terrace…’ The case was kicked out that morning. I have a couple of convictions, but they are both from the early 1980s. In those days I’m sure coppers looked at these ugly skinheads getting stuck in and decided to nick someone on the edges with loads of scarves on like me.
Has it ever put you off?
No. Never. The way I dress is part of my passion. I love the club. My bedroom is a shrine to Pompey. It’s the last thing I see before I go to sleep and the first when I wake up.
What about Southampton?
It is great to have rivals. They are a totally different club to Portsmouth: a middle-class club, whereas Pompey is a working-class club. Saints fans like their football but Pompey have real passion. That’s why the rivalry sometimes seems one-way. I have many friends who are Southampton fans and funnily enough my solicitor is one, too. Once I needed a driver to get us to Swindon so I gave a Saints-supporting mate 50 quid to do the job. When the lads found out — I let it slip after a few drinks — they were trying to beat him up, but I said, ‘How are you going to get home without him?’ By the end we were all mates and he came on a couple of other trips with us. There’s nothing wrong with a hostile atmosphere, but when people start tearing up their own city [as Pompey fans did in 2004 after a derby game] I just don’t get that.
“I have many friends who are Southampton fans and funnily enough my solicitor is one, too”
Wasn’t there an incident where you were accused of pissing on the seats at St Mary’s?
It’s not true. Before the game I did a piece with the local Southampton paper calling for calm. It was near the end of the game and I needed a wee. The police were not letting anyone go to the toilets, so I said, ‘I am going to have to go over by that wall’, and I did. The next thing I know the same newspaper is running story about me pissing on the seats. I didn’t.
What is your relationship with alcohol and football these days?
It is a big part of the day out. I have always been able to hold my drink. When I was younger I used to get hammered, but [laughing] you had to be able to watch the football in those days it was so bad. As I’ve got older to stay healthy I have cut down. There’s a misconception I am always rat-arsed at a game. I’m not. I control my alcohol, not the other way around.
So how do you answer your critics?
You are a buffoon or an anti-social oaf who brings the club into disrepute for many… I am an old-school football fan. I like to be one of the lads creating the atmosphere. I’ve never gone out to be this ‘number one fan’. The flamboyant outfit is accident rather than plan. I did it for a laugh as much as anything else. Football is meant to be a day out with a carnival atmosphere. Fans dress up for cup finals, but every game is a cup final for me.
So you don’t really approve of modern football crowds?
A lot of fans out there, I think, are sucking passion out of the game. I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea and you’ve got to accept flak or stop doing what I do. I’m no angel, but I try to do right things. Sometimes I get passionate and carried away. Bells, bugles and drums don’t make the atmosphere but it can help it along. Sustain it. Me and my mates are just fans, the same as everyone else. I’m just so proud of Pompey. It is a proper, proper football club.
What does that mean?
We are rough and ready. A throwback to how football used to be: intimidating. Raucous, even. There should be places where the ‘lad’ can go. The reason the Fratton End was so imposing was because it was full of geezers making a noise. When we were in the Premier League they even installed decibel readers. If people around don’t like it, why don’t they just go and sit in the South Stand?