8,616 miles. This is the milage Portsmouth FC have clocked up over the 2020/21 season. Although, in this extraordinary time, they have not been joined by the thousands of supporters following in their footsteps. The government requirement for professional sport to remain ensnared by thousands of empty plastic seats, with the anomalous cardboard cut-out, has left supporters confined to the comfort of their sofa. Well, all except one.
As Portsmouth’s team coach pulls up outside the Stadium of Light, Bloomfield road, or the Crown ground, a beaten-up van with battle scars from many away day’s malaise pulls in behind it. Then, as the players make their way inside the ground and onto the pitch, a familiar bell and quirky bugle begin to resonate, the sound heard by every Pompey fan tuning in for their weekly fix of football action. It’s a sound that every Pompey fan knows. The sound of dedication, the sound of loyalty, the sound of John ‘Portsmouth Football Club’ Westwood.Embed from Getty Images
Not getting into grounds hasn’t been an issue for Westwood this season. The Petersfield Bookshop owner has shared the 8,616 miles that his beloved Portsmouth have completed this season, despite not watching the game.
As I stepped foot in his antiquarian bookshop in the serene Hampshire countryside town of Petersfield, the image of a fanatical superfan couldn’t have felt more out of place. But, as John arrived in his suitable work attire – Pompey blue from head to toe, I asked him what life has been like this season: “Strangest season of any football fan’s life, I haven’t missed a game home or away since 1979.Embed from Getty Images
“Even if it meant standing outside and ringing a bell and seeing the team off at the end, I had to do it; I had no choice,” said John.
This season not supporting Pompey was never on the agenda. In many cases, Pompey’s most famous fan and his friend Simon Milne have been lucky enough to watch matches from vantage points outside the grounds. Some would say it’s the least they deserve: “We’ve been on pallets, we’ve had vantage points like at Crewe I basically saw the whole game, and at Southend, we could see the game through the bushes,” Westwood explained as he enlightened me of his COVID footy experience.
In a time when rules and restrictions have dominated our lives, John told of the hospitable nature of everyone he has met whilst on his travels this season: “The police have been brilliant, giving me cups of tea and being really friendly.
“We’ve been to games when police have a kick about outside, and the managers have been brilliant; Kenny Jackett, Mark Catlin, and Guy Whittingham have been brilliant.”
Despite his notoriety amongst the footballing world, Westwood divides opinion among the Pompey fans. The die-hard Pompey fan has been subject to accusations of attention-seeking and is seen to harm the club’s image from a section of the Fratton faithful. Social media sites such as Twitter have allowed for his excursions this season to be publicised and scrutinised. However, for John, this isn’t the case: “I do it for myself and the club, no one else.
“I don’t have social media, I don’t look at it, and it’s not about anyone else but the club and me. So, I simply cannot not go to games; through hell or high water, I will be there.”
He added: “For me, it’s so natural, I can’t say to anyone why I do it; it’s just natural.”Embed from Getty Images
For someone to sacrifice as much time, money, and effort as John does following Pompey up and down the country, even in ‘COVID times,’ the criticism he faces is somewhat hard to justify. Yet, for John, Simon, and the other die-hard fans who follow him on his pilgrimages, the criticism isn’t heard. Instead, it’s about supporting their team and grasping back some of their matchday experience: “At the beginning of the season, I was still going to pubs and going outside the grounds at halftime, so I still got some of the experience.
“We’ve gone to all the local pubs we would usually go to,” As John told of his matchday rituals.
For Westwood and his crew, football from a bygone era is what they fell in love with. The freedom that supporters had in the 60s/70s was far more than we are left with today. However, going to the football was not about the football, it was about the experience, the journey, the carnival atmosphere, and the social aspect with mates: “I began my football experience supporting Pompey, I never played, I used to take my rattle to games, and then someone suggested drums, to create a carnival-like atmosphere.Embed from Getty Images
“It’s what football is about,” said John.As the football world cultivates new notions of European Super Leagues and moves away from the ‘true fan’ searching for more lucrative TV rights and sponsorship deals from the far east, it’s essential not to forget who makes football tick. These multi-billionaires who are attempting to hijack our beautiful game wouldn’t struggle to see the immense value of what John Westwood has undertaken this season. Football is so much more than the consumer product they want it to be. It’s about journeys, it’s about memories, it’s about friendships, it’s about dedication, and it’s hard to argue that Westwood isn’t an epitome of that