17 July ~ As the season looms there’s an air of resignation among many Shrewsbury Town fans. It’s the feeling of being stuck in a division you can’t get out of. It could have been so much different. Five years ago the last season at Gay Meadow was unexpectedly prolonged by a play-off campaign that saw Shrewsbury beat MK Dons to play in the first League play-off final at the new Wembley. Defeat to Bristol Rovers meant that the inaugural season of the ground everyone refers to as the “New Meadow” was played in League Two.
Two seasons later under a different manager, Paul Simpson, Town were back at Wembley, losing to a gut-wrenching last-minute goal against Gillingham. The following season, without talismanic striker Grant Holt, who this year will be playing in the Premier League with Norwich, the team faltered and Simpson was sacked. Any negativity was dissipated at the start of 2010-11 by the arrival of “living legend” Graham Turner, who as player-manager took Shrewsbury to the old second division in 1979. Never mind that season ticket sales were markedly down or that during the course of the season attendances at New Meadow dipped below 5,000 for the first time. Surely, with the messiah back, this was going to be our year.
Wycombe’s unearned point against us – when they had a goal awarded when the ball didn’t cross the line – gave them a one-point advantage over us at the end of the season and meant they occupied the final automatic promotion spot. Still, Turner had guided the club to its highest league position in 15 years – fourth in League Two. But capitulation in Torquay and a dire performance in the return leg meant the Gulls got to travel to Old Trafford to play Stevenage in the play-off final.
At the moment it seems Turner is safe in his job, but if the recent cycle of play-offs followed by a mediocre season continues he may not be comfortable. Town fans are starting to moan about how a club with a large fanbase like ours belongs at a higher level. It’s a ridiculous thing to claim, but that sense of entitlement is really only an expression of disappointment with the not-quite-boom-not-quite-bust of the last few seasons. Disappointment has already led to some desertions.
There are other pressures on Town this year as well. The return of fellow Salopians AFC Telford back to one division below the Football League means there is definite competition for floating fans. A good season for Telford, or a very bad one for Shrewsbury, and the two clubs could be kicking off in the same division for the second time within a decade. Telford, arguably, also have more attractive fixtures. Any Town fan wanting to boo Wrexham this year need only travel the 15 miles down the road on Boxing Day. Already I imagine West Mercia Police have cancelled all leave. With that game destined to sell out, Town have an away trip to Cheltenham. It’s a short trip, but not exactly a rivalry. I know where I plan to be instead.
With fans still sore at the play-off failure last year, and the external pressures of local rivals coming good, those repeated missed opportunities may prove detrimental to Shrewsbury in numerous ways. We realise we are lucky – fans of many other clubs are living with awful crises. But the pessimism bred by near misses is hard to shake off. Jon Matthias