It’s a unique sight that still hits home the severity and unusualness of Town’s position, with manager Steve Cotterill a spectator from a distance for every game so far this year, writes Lewis Cox.
It is to their immense credit Shrewsbury have not wilted. They were dealt the toughest of hands and have stood firm. The absence of their inspirational leader in person on the sidelines cannot be overstated.
Cotterill and Wilbraham will, however, want to see the team bounce back against 14th-placed Argyle from back-to-back league defeats for the first time since the manager’s appointment in November. A factor which was raised after Friday’s poor defeat in Northampton, a statistic Cotterill does not like.
And, once again, the manager will be doing his absolute utmost some 100 miles away to influence today’s League One match in his club’s favour.
The method has changed over the months of Cotterill’s absence. Tales of the manager spilling his hospital ice-cream and cup of tea as Shrews secured a vital, tight win at Swindon in February will go down as legend in Shropshire.
Typically there would be a couple of phone calls per game, but it is entirely dependent on the match. Second-half calls are more frequent, around the time of substitutions. But in the last home game, a defeat to Portsmouth, Cotterill was giving his instructions in the first period about a half-time change of formation.
Connecting Cotterill’s voice, which has grown stronger over the weeks, to the dressing room bluetooth speakers has been hit and miss in some locations. Initially it was over mobile phone loudspeaker, crackly and broken-up at best. But the sound of Cotterill’s passion over booming subwoofers – usually for blaring out music at Montgomery Waters Meadow – has been an inspiration.
The manager would watch games from hospital on his laptop (or several screens!) but the Bristol Royal Infirmary wifi was ropey at best and he soon realised he would get a more reliable picture on his phone – which affected communication with Wilbraham.
The fact that the iFollow viewing stream, so familiar to absent supporters this season, lags behind the actual live action is another quirk.
In the early days, at Swindon and others, No.2 Wilbraham would regularly be seen on his phone, sometimes disappearing down the tunnel to take a call from the gaffer. Quips about Wilbraham ordering a post-match takeaway were made by some fans.
After a couple of weeks he decided Apple AirPods, which connect to a phone via bluetooth and allow hands-free calls, would be far simpler – and a better look!
“I think the AirPods look better than the mobile phone to be fair!” Wilbraham smiled. “It’s a good way of communicating, the manager can help me and I can let him know about things he maybe can’t see.
“It’s worked well. With the gaffer speaking to the boys on the bluetooth speaker, how he does before, at half-time and after the game, has worked really well as well.
“It seems a bit surreal at the time but you can hear a pin drop when the gaffer’s talking. He gets good information over like he’s in the room.
“It’s worked really well and we’ve made the best of a really bad situation.”
Wilbraham explained his method of communication: “It rings in the AirPods, yes, then I just switch the call across on my phone.
“Sometimes I’ve heard nothing in the first half, it tends to be second half, it varies on the games.
“It’s always hard because he’s like a minute behind, he’ll ring about a corner they’ve got and I’ll say ‘don’t worry we defended it’.
“When we’ve scored I’m expecting a call 30 or 40 seconds later because he’s buzzing about the goal. I’ve got quite used to the timing.
“Yes (I won’t spoil it), when we score, I know I’ll be getting a call. In hospital he had to watch it on his phone, so I didn’t want to ruin it by ringing him! I just let him see it.”