An enthralling 90 minutes, edged by visitors Oxford United, signalled Shrewsbury Town manager Steve Cotterill’s return to competitive action.
It was the 56-year-old’s first game, in person, in more than four months – since December 29, after the victory over Blackpool in front of supporters, where afterwards he promised “there is news to come”, in which he was talking about the loan arrivals of Harry Chapman and Matthew Pennington.
What he didn’t realise was what was really to come.
A Covid-19 outbreak had already punctured the Town ranks, beginning with Matt Millar, and taken its grip. Their fixture on Saturday, January 2 was called off. Town trained on the Friday, at the stadium. That would be the last Cotterill saw of his assistant Aaron Wilbraham, his staff and his players, for exactly four months, until Saturday.
The manager’s return was a rollercoaster affair. His side were behind inside three minutes, they led at half-time, but were defeated 3-2 at home by Oxford for the third season running.
Pennington slipped within minutes, handing Elliot Lee the chance to finish a well-taken opener. Pennington showed Cotterill-esque grit to head in an equaliser to atone shortly afterwards. Josh Vela’s fine finish for Town to lead before the break was deserved for a vibrant first-half display.
The second half, however, would not go Shrewsbury’s way.
It was a chaotic match, but the truly special turn of events at the Meadow occurred a couple of hours before kick-off, as Cotterill arrived solo up from his Bristol home for what must have been an emotionally-charged and something of a surreal experience. The manager had hardly travelled, other than short journeys to hospital and to the gym, in months.
He arrived, parked up and was met with a big hug from his assistant and former Bristol City player Wilbraham. The duo had been together about three weeks before they were forced apart by the virus. Wilbraham had not seen his manager’s face since New Year’s Day.
Cotterill edged though the tunnel and out on to the Meadow pitch, where he took in his surroundings on a glorious afternoon, before a chat with opposite number Karl Robinson, among others.
It was then that the Town boss, described as overwhelmed and a little nervous by his assistant, got his players and staff together in the home changing room for an emotional exchange.
The Shrews chief quickly saw off his nerves. Took charge of the room and displayed the fierce, quick wit he is renowned for throughout football. Wilbraham and Vela remarked afterwards how the banter came out straight away, micky-taking at how some of his players looked.
The mutual respect, for the job achieved to ensure League One safety over these tumultuous four months, was there in abundance, certainly from squad to manager.
Wilbraham revealed Cotterill told the players to ‘appreciate life’, given the ordeal he had been through in Bristol Royal Infirmary’s intensive care unit. The long hours, days, weeks and months. Vela said the boss described exactly how he had almost died. After the emotional talk,which really put things in perspective, the players gave their boss a collective round of applause.
Somehow, Cotterill decided to refuse the temptation of joining Wilbraham & Co in the dugout and instead remained in the directors’ box at the back of the Roland Wycherley Stand throughout the contest.
Cotterill, the former Bristol City, Notts County and Birmingham boss, remained largely quiet in the first half, busy scribbling in his notepad, seated some way away from Town’s board members, including Wycherley, Brian Caldwell and Paul Delves, as well as secretary Jayne Bebb, to his right.
One of the goals drew him to his feet. And the odd “take him on” could be heard yelled when Chapman threatened to dart into the Oxford box.
After the boss had given his half-time team talk in person, mercifully, he took his place back in the comfortable seats behind us in the press box and, as a tight, tense, edgy second half progressed, he became more and more audible.
Wilbraham had the AirPods (wireless earphones) we have become accustomed to seeing in his ears, presumably in order to take calls from the directors’ box. Without fans, in the otherwise atmosphere-less Meadow, they were not required.
Cotterill and Town started the second period keen to hold on to what would have been a fine victory. Cotterill, still on steroid medication to help aid his recovery, delivered instructions from the front of the directors’ box to substitute Ro-Shaun Williams and first-team coach David Longwell just after the hour mark, as the hosts prepared a triple substitution, just as Oxford levelled through James Henry.
In truth, pressure had told. Shrewsbury could not match their first-half tempo after the break and Oxford, with everything on the line in their late play-off push, predictably came on strong and squeezed in a late, fortunate, winner as Dan Agyei’s shot on the turn deflected past Harry Burgoyne.
One other highlight on an afternoon that belonged to the Shrewsbury boss and his strength over these recent months was a nod to the future, and a start for 17-year-old academy first-year scholar Tom Bloxham.
Bloxham, who came off the bench late on against Lincoln last Tuesday, was a breath of fresh air. The tall, rangy forward didn’t stop running, harrying defenders, winning his headers and showing neat touches. It looked like his first of many displays in blue and amber.
Such are the crazy times we are living in, Bloxham’s parents, who dropped him off at the Meadow for the game, remained parked in the stadium car park to watch their son’s debut live on iFollow on a mobile device, barely 100 metres from the pitch.
The result, sadly, got away from Town, despite Cotterill’s staggering efforts from above late on. The manager was screaming and bellowing at his players to attack, picking roles and tactics for them at the top of his voice.
Other than the sky blue medical mask covering his mouth you would not know he had been ill. It was not a welcome back clash to help his heart rate. It was a good job his specialists were, presumably, not watching.
It was a sight to behold and ultimately summed up the quite unbelievable last four months at this football club. A defeat for Town, but we should all heed the manager’s message, to appreciate life.