There was a curious atmosphere at the Kassam on Saturday. Failing Portsmouth brought a following fit for the Premier League, while we - holding a play-off spot - spattered around the rest of the stadium as though our visitors were Rochdale or Accrington. The biggest small game or the smallest big game of the season.
The explanation was that Pompey have found themselves the poster boys for almost all the game's ills - implicated, indirectly, in match fixing, debt, greed, bankruptcy and relegation. It's kind of difficult to know whether they are the victims of the system, or one of the villains stupid enough to get caught.
Cut to Saturday afternoon and the great swathes of Portsmouth fans banking along the North Stand; an impressive sight and a great racket. We, on the other hand, arrived in our dwindling number, eroded by form and an acute awareness of the product on offer. We weren't fooled by the name of the team in town, this was just another League 2 fixture. It was a peculiar sight; not dissimilar to our days in the Conference when we'd swamp ramshackle non-league stadia; and then put in a ramshackle non-league performance.
The Portsmouth following crowd may still look like it's from the Premier League, they sing heartily, but it is difficult to know what for. Their team is wretched, ponderous, unambitious and glacially slow. As incongruous as it feels; they are genuinely amongst the worst we've seen at the Kassam this year.
You wonder how it can possible sustain the facade. Even the most loyal fans realise eventually that a failing club simply isn't worth the effort. You don't stop supporting, of course, you just stop going.
What is an away crowd made up of? I’ve no evidence to back this up; but I’d say 15% are made up of those who go to every game and have become almost divorced from functioning society, they haven’t seen anything outside a football stadium on a Saturday afternoon between August and May for years. A majority, say, 55% will be those who consider away games as a normal part of their support – they’ll go regularly, but not always. 10% will be exiles for whom this is their local fixture, a rare opportunity to see their team, the first fixture they look for when they come out in June. Another 10% will have some kind of affiliation with the opponents' town or surrounds – perhaps they’ve got friends there, or it’s their old university town. What remains is 10% of people who simply come for some random reason – a free weekend, a ground they’ve never been to.
Whether it’s Accrington Stanley or Manchester United, I reckon away followings are broadly made up like this. The volumes are different - dictated by success - but the motivations are the same.
Portsmouth fans will still feel the echo of trips to Wembley, The Emirates and Old Trafford, so they continue to bring large numbers. But, the thing about young people is that they gradually become old people. The 55% of regulars will, over time, acquire responsibilities – family, work, weekly shops at Morrisons – for which they will eventually have to sacrifice long boozy away days with their mates.
What, in normal circumstances, replaces those people are more people like you used to be. Except when you’re like Portsmouth, those young (and they are usually young) men (and they are usually men) need to have a reason to make the financial sacrifice to follow a team up and down the country. Good football and results help, of course, but that's in woefully short supply for Portsmouth. The new regulars that bulk out an away following won't have the memories to compel them to travel.
You wonder, if they do survive this year (I think they will, but it’s far from guaranteed) and we stay down (who knows?), whether we’ll see the same numbers turning up in the North Stand next year? I doubt it; and over time, if they can’t arrest this slide they’ll become filed alongside us, Wimbledon, Bradford, Luton and others under ‘weren’t we good once’?
We, on the other hand, are a reliable diesel, slow, unspectacular, but we’ll get there eventually. There were times on Saturday when we were like a snow plough; slowly pushing back Portsmouth to their own penalty box. But we could dig out way through the piles of blue, er, snow that we'd created. Ryan Williams, Alfie Potter, Danny Rose, Dave Kitson and now Nicky Wroe are supposed to give us a creative spark on top of the platform of Mullins, Wright and Whing (when fit). In reality back-four is heart of the team is. We looked more robust with Mullins in midfield, which gave Rose, Wroe and Rigg more time on the ball, but it still feels like a team to draw a lot of games.
People are screaming for something more thrilling, and exciting and it’s difficult to argue against that. But that’s where we are at the moment and the pattern is all but set for the rest of the season. If we do make any more signings before the end of the transfer window, they’re not likely to make a lot of difference to the overall pattern and style. It’s time to knuckle down and endure the ride.