Shrewsbury Town Fall At The Last
Every club has a thing or two about it. Shrewsbury Town has several. The club’s former ground, Gay Meadow, was so close to a river that the club had to employ a man in a boat to fish out errant match balls on Saturday afternoons. Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls was wearing a Shewsbury Town shirt when stopped by a metal detector in the 1984 film. No-one seems able to decide definitively whether it’s pronounced “Shroos-bury” or “Shrows-bury”, even though the locals themselves seem pretty much decided on the subject. “Salop” is used interchangeably as an alternate name for the county of Shropshire, an abbreviation for “Shropshire”, and an alternative name for the town of Shrewsbury itself.
Shrewsbury Town supporters walked out into the glare of the inside of Wembley this afternoon, possibly blinking slightly at the events of the last nine months or so. In 2004, the club was relegated from the Football League, although only for the one season. Subsequent to that, they sat in League Two until 2012, when they were promoted before being relegated straight back. At the 2014/15 season they were promoted again, and this time it has stuck… just. The last two seasons have seen Shrewsbury finish in twentieth and eighteenth place in the League One table respectively. This season, however, the stars have aligned. They went unbeaten until the 21st of October in the league, and were still at the top of the table as late as March, before slipping down to third place.
It has become a common trope in the play-offs that the team which gets closest to automatic promotion is most likely to suffer in the play-offs, having thrown their all into getting automatic promotion coupled with any disappointment from missing out. Shrewsbury, however, are at Wembley. They bounced back from this disappointment with a solid and convincing two-nil aggregate win against Charlton Athetic in the semi-finals of the play-offs, a result which hinted in more than one sense at a form of resilience which might have been overlooked somewhat as they slid from the automatic promotion places.
Eight minutes into their match against Rotherham United this afternoon they rode their luck, when Omar Beckles tangled unnecessarily with Richard Wood at far post from a corner. There was no doubt that it was a penalty kick, but David Ball’s kick was weak, and Dean Henderson calmly palmed the ball to one side. Shrewsbury slowly started to get into the game after this but were second best for long spells ,and though there was something ironic to the fact that the first goal of the game came after their best spell of pressure and their best chance – a glanced header from Carlton Norris which floated across the Rotherham goal and dropped just wide – when Richard Wood escaped the grasp of Beckles to score from the far post.
By half-time, though, it was difficult to argue that Rotherham’s lead wasn’t a fair reflection on the balance of play to that point. Shrewsbury had played as possibly as it was possible to imagine they would, and their deficit might have been even worse, had David Ball’s penalty not been as poor as it was. Rotherham also dominated large spells of the opening period of the second half, but thirteen minutes in, that damned inner reilience kicked in again. When a free-kick was awarded on the left-hand side of the Rotherham penalty area, it was the already the most significant attacking movement that they’d managed since half-time.
And when the goal came, it was perfectly delivered, a short pass to Sadler who threaded the ball through to Rodman to score from close range. They hadn’t really warranted it, but they were level, with half an hour to play. And as the clock ran down, the tell-tale signs of tiredness started to kick in. Water breaks. Players going down to be tended to for cramp. It’d had been a long, hard slog of a season, but both teams were still stretching every sinew to try and pull out a result. The closest either side came was five minutes into stoppage time, when Henderson p9ulled off a great save from a shot from Williams.
Extra-time, though, was around the corner, and is was at this point that we finally saw the difference between the two teams amount to something. Three minutes from the half-time interval in extra-time, Richard Wood again found himself in some space inside the Shrewsbury penalty area and placed the ball into the goal to put Rotherham back in front. For all of their huffing and puffing, Shrewsbury seldom seriously looked like getting behind the Rotherham defence over the remainder of the match. They’ve played sixty-two matches over the course of this season, after all. The most significant number of anything in the closing minutes of the game was players surrendering to the effects of cramp and the heat, and at the blowing of the full-time whistle it’s difficult to argue that Rotherham United have been deserving winners over the course of this one hundred and twenty-minutes.
There is a generation of supporters for whom Shrewsbury Town is a club of the second tier. Promoted into the Second Division at the end of the 1978/79 season and relegated back exactly ten years later, this was a club that held its own at this level of the game for a full decade. As children, we didn’t necessarily know that they’d never played at this level. They haven’t played at it since. There will disappointment in Shrewsbury tonight. The team fought against the odds to become genuine promotion contenders. They finished the season on eighty-seven points, which in other year might have been enough to get them promoted automatically. It’s just that this season they ran into Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic, who ended the season on ninety-eight and ninety-six points respectively. Those sort of records were always going to be practically impossible to keep up with.
It hurts this evening, and it’ll hurt tomorrow, but Shrewsbury Town supporters will likely come to remember their team of 2017/18 with considerable affection. Teams of this nature that come from nowhere have a tendency to stick in the mind unless another comes along that does even better, and if Shrewsbury Town have reached as close as they can to Championship football, the future may well look favourably upon this team. Manager Paul Hurst may well be tempted by an offer from someone a bit bigger. He took a step up football’s food chain to move from Grimsby Town, and his achievements over the course of this season have drawn attention from outside of the club. But ultimately, Shrewsbury Town are in a stronger position than they have been in for a long time. They were almost one of the biggest surprises of the season. Their promotion would have been second only to Accrington Stanley’s achievement of winning the League Two title. If they can hold onto the manager, the key players, and flesh out a slightly threadbare squad somewhat, they could be back next year. The new season is already less than three months away.