Analysis: Shrewsbury Town miss inspiring Steve Cotterill as football feels empty one year on

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of a full quota of supporters permitted inside Montgomery Waters Meadow to watch Shrewsbury Town.

Every fan of a blue and amber persuasion is longing to be back. Football matches have not nearly been the same since.

They feel like practice games, like academy under-23 matches, soulless, meaningless, pointless.

Except they aren’t pointless, as Town are playing for points, and have been – for the majority since Steve Cotterill’s appointment in November – brilliant in clawing themselves clear of very real relegation fears.

There have been some (what should have been) special moments, both home and away. But with nobody in the stands to enjoy them, those moments are barely worth a small percentage to fans watching on a crackly, lagging iFollow stream.

There have been trial pilots where Salop have led the way for fans returning, a defeat in September in the first home game of the season and a couple of fixtures at the beginning and end of December. These have felt better, something resembling normal. But it is a sad state of affairs that an empty stadium, containing only players, staff, directors and a small pocket of press now feels ‘the new norm’. Roll on next season.

As in their last game in front of uncapped supporters, on March 7, 2020, Town lost at home. On this occasion Cotterill’s men were soundly beaten 2-0 by Fleetwood, who started the day just two points and a place better off than their hosts. Though, of course, as we are sadly used to, Cotterill remained a long way away, both geographically and in his bid to return to the dugout.

Players and staff warming up in special ‘get well soon gaffer’ t-shirts further hit home the message. This was the 11th Shrewsbury match Cotterill has not orchestrated from the sidelines, instead had to agonise on from his hospital bed or at best home living room. The manager only oversaw nine games in charge in person.

It is a startling reminder firstly that the football is so unimportant and, indeed, pointless – as the manager continues to fight his most important fight so far against pneumonia, an effect of the serious bout of Covid he suffered.

Secondly, it has to be reiterated what a damning impact not having your leader calling rank from the front has on a football team, especially somebody of Cotterill’s demeanour and charisma.

As coach David Longwell said after the underwhelming and forgettable game, it also needs hammering home how much strength is required to call shots while ill in hospital. You suspect that, without that, Shrewsbury would be far worse off.

Some supporters, cautious and rightly worried about the manager’s health, want him to step back further and cut his workload totally to focus on recovery.

That is a difficult topic. Cotterill is a strong bloke, both physically and certainly emotionally and he is his own man and will do as he feels comfortable and pleases. He will also listen and act on the advice of his specialists and, perhaps most importantly, his family. So we should all respect that. Stories of emotion in the absent boss’s voice as he congratulated Town players on another fine win, or spilled ice cream and tea on his hospital bedsheets felt a little way back at 5pm on Saturday as Shrewsbury went three games without a win for the first time in three months.

Cotterill, watching from Bristol Royal Infirmary on iFollow, can’t have been pleased with the manner of the two goals his side conceded against fellow mid-tablers Fleetwood.

Just like last weekend’s disappointment at Bristol Rovers, Shrewsbury conceded on the stroke of half-time, as sloppy distribution from Ro-Shaun Williams was brutally punished by right wing-back Wes Burns who, given the ball in his own half, was allowed to gallop forward like a prime Cheltenham Festival steed totally unchecked before placing a low shot into the corner from the edge of the box.

One suspects that certainly had an affect on the manager’s phone call team talk, although Town hadn’t exactly sparkled prior to that in what had been a very dull first 45 minutes where the hosts looked – understandably – jaded.

They were unable to pick it up after the break, despite the bold half-time change of formation and personnel, introducing Sean Goss as an attacking midfielder for wing-back Josh Daniels and reverting from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3.

Town were bright initially but it rather faded and they failed to unpick Fleetwood’s lock. The visitors have a reputation for being comfortable in possession and they were happy to play in small triangles, despite at times handing Salop the ball in their own third.

The killer second goal, scored by ex-Town man Kyle Vassell with around 20 minutes to go, did for any hopes of fighting back for at least a point.

Again it was a disappointing goal to concede, as Ged Garner was allowed to venture forward unprovoked and slot a clever ball into the box to release Vassell, who did what he never managed in 13 games on loan for Town five years ago, scored a goal.

Town looked tired, perhaps physically and emotionally. They looked low on confidence (although Longwell argued otherwise). Shrewsbury’s performance last midweek in the draw against Wimbledon was OK for large parts and on another day they would have won, but they have now put in two laboured and underwhelming consecutive Saturday displays.

I would argue that, above all, this dip in form and results was probably always likely to come.

Two weeks ago in this very column, after Town had fought back for a point at Accrington and before their thrashing of MK Dons, I stated how Salop faced five fixtures against sides in and around them in the table. They were nine points off the play-offs. That always felt fanciful but a run of something close to maximum points could have done the unthinkable.

The 4-2 Dons success has been their only victory in a disappointing haul of four points from 12 before the trip to Rochdale tomorrow.

It wasn’t wrong for fans to dream. Town had it within their grasp to really exert themselves on the teams around them and push towards the top half. But, for now, it wasn’t to be. Everything, physically and emotionally, has caught up on them.

It was never likely that Shrewsbury, second-bottom with just one league win in 13 before Cotterill arrived, would continue atop the form table given the volume of games and, more importantly, without their inspiring boss.

Predictably, as they have done for weeks and even months now, Town remain 17th in League One. They are still eight points clear of the drop with games in hand.

It is to their absolute credit they are still comfortable amid the blip. That doesn’t mean they don’t need to put it right at basement boys Rochdale tomorrow – to end the Spotland hoodoo.

How perversely ironic would it be that an abysmal run of two decades of poor results at Rochdale is ended without a single fan there to see it. Another reminder of how empty this all feels, a situation exemplified by the sad plight of the absent boss.

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