Comment: Why the most forgettable of Shrewsbury Town seasons should never be forgotten

It certainly was a Shrewsbury Town season like no other.

Steve Cotterill the head coach / manager of Shrewsbury Town.
Steve Cotterill the head coach / manager of Shrewsbury Town.

Everyone has been badly hit by the pandemic, including all football clubs, but few if any had as tough a hand dealt as Salop.

There may not have been any fans there to witness most of the 54 games, but Steve Cotterill’s remarkable, awe-inspiring successful mission of dragging Shrewsbury to League One safety from his hospital bed will go down in the annals.

Town’s 2020/21 campaign can be neatly divided into three acts.

An underwhelming, arduous, at-times unfortunate, but ultimately disastrous 18 games (13 in the league) under former boss Sam Ricketts had Town 23rd in the league with just one win and nine points – already four points from safety by the time Ricketts was axed in late November.

The general assumption and concern of fans was that the squad was not nearly good enough and plummeting down to League Two. Town’s one league win in that period came at AFC Wimbledon via a last-gasp Leon Clarke effort – his first and only goal for the club – a contest where the Dons were hard done by.

Ricketts was unlucky to lose goalkeeper Matija Sarkic and eventual top scorer Shaun Whalley to injuries until his time at the club was up. The impressive introduction of Matt Millar came too late, again owing to fitness. But Town couldn’t buy a win. They were undone by a poor, newly-promoted Northampton in front of fans in their first home fixture.

A home contest against Gillingham in early October felt like a crucial chance wasted. Salop led throughout until a last-gasp equaliser meant the wait for three points went on.

The win at Wimbledon came and went before Salop lost home games in the space of a week against Bristol Rovers and Rochdale. Both would be relegated.

Shrewsbury’s wait for a home league win would extend into Cotterill’s reign and become an unwanted piece of history. December 29 – the longest wait for three home points.

Supporters were distinctly unimpressed. Ricketts’ lockdown promise of a refreshed style to include more goals and better entertainment was always likely to see Salop more loose at the back than in seasons gone by. But wins in the league would not follow.

Sam Ricketts the head coach / manager of Shrewsbury Town (AMA)

Loans hadn’t worked either. Marlon Fossey, Shilow Tracey, Jan Zamburek and Scott High were not up to it. Neither were signings Rekeil Pyke or Clarke.

Performances from key individuals Aaron Pierre, Ethan Ebanks-Landell and Josh Vela among others were below-par. Errors were aplenty. Sean Goss and Donald Love were bizarrely and inexplicably frozen out.

Veterans Charlie Daniels and Marc Pugh arrived as free agents in a chaotic week. Neither could help turn the tide.

A four-game losing streak, ending with the 5-1 pasting at Peterborough, was almost terminal. The forums, social media and call-ins were jammed with calls for Ricketts to be sacked as the second lockdown loomed.

The boss was given basement boys Burton at home. Daniel Udoh’s 97th-minute equaliser for 1-1 was a stay of execution, but three league games afterwards – which included throwing away 3-1 and 2-0 leads against Swindon and MK Dons – Ricketts was done for.

The season’s middle act, from November 27 until roughly January 1, encompasses Cotterill’s appointment and the stunning turnaround in results.

By the time Town’s new boy was taken ill in the new year, he was named League One manager of the month for December following an unbeaten run of four wins and three draws that had lifted Town to 16th, five points clear of the drop zone. A dramatic turnaround.

Cotterill, who came boasting a pedigree and experience few could match, had to be relentless in his first days and weeks. He felt like he had been at Town years after just seven days. His appointment of rookie coach Aaron Wilbraham was soon to, somewhat unknowingly, become a masterstroke.

There was much to do. Plenty to sort. He desperately needed to get a tune out of a group of players that couldn’t win. And, after some encouraging draws, he did so.

Who could forget the run of three 1-0 wins at Hull, Lincoln and Doncaster? The bookies priced it 2,000-1 – relegation-threatened Shrewsbury winning 1-0 at three of the top four in successive games? No chance.

But those nine points by Christmas were a major factor in helping Town survive. They exuded confidence and belief in players and fans, and enticed targets such as Harry Chapman and Matthew Pennington.

The final act – a chaotic, at-times agonising, deeply-worrying period of four months nobody saw coming – totalled 27 games.

Twenty-seven games without Cotterill in the dugout. Twenty-four without the boss in any stadia, many from his hospital bed in the Covid-19 ward at Bristol Royal Infirmary via a crackly, lagging iFollow stream, the others from his home living room 100 miles away. Somehow, amazingly, Shrewsbury got over the line to safety in an unprecedented time without their inspirational figurehead. With just his, at times broken, at other times booming yet endlessly influential voice to guide them, over a dressing room subwoofer.

The manager’s efforts were genuinely staggering. Most worried he was working too hard. But he wouldn’t be told. Football – work – is Cotterill’s life and his duty was to get his side over the line. Not one percentage was overlooked. Every training session, let alone every match, was laid out and studied to the nth degree.

Shaun Whalley of Shrewsbury Town celebrates with his team mates after scoring a goal to make it 2-1 (AMA)

Wilbraham admitted footballers, generally through his 24 years experience, slack off in training when their manager takes a day off. Town couldn’t afford to slack for four months.

Chapman would play a pivotal role. His seven goals were directly worth 13 points alone. Pennington and David Davis were very sound additions. Pierre began to shine but would soon pull up injured. Vela and Ollie Norburn started to tick in midfield. The former now soon-to-be crowned player of the season. Goss was in from the cold and reborn

The job was complete, with plenty to spare. Town were realistically, yet not mathematically, safe by around late March, by which point they were still 17th – a position they became ever so familiar with and would go on to finish – but with 46 points on the board and 12 games remaining, including a couple in hand over their rivals.

More milestones were hit. The magical 50-point mark came with a gritty 0-0 at Gillingham in April. The team, unintentionally, let out a deep breath. Mathematical safety arrived in Blackpool on April 24.

That Bloomfield Road victory was the only win in Town’s final nine games. They managed just five points from a possible 27 in that period. Performances didn’t drop entirely, but the percentages and margins began going against them.

Wilbraham and the players insisted Cotterill was watching on, planning, judging, assessing his squad’s character, with 14 out of contract. But the very hard yards in the most trying of circumstances had been covered. Who could blame the players a breather?

The long, relentless months with scarcely a free midweek in sight were never going to be smooth. Town re-started, after three weeks due to the Covid outbreak, with defeats at Southampton and Sunderland, in the FA Cup and league respectively, during a January that included new recruits and another Will Grigg saga.

Then came three wins from four, including over high-flying Peterborough and Sunderland and rivals Swindon. Match-winner Chapman danced and flourished. Starlet Nathanael Ogbeta became an unlikely hero.

Cotterill would continue to rotate. For fresh legs but more importantly to assess his squad. Results were up and down. Vital wins at Burton and Rochdale arrived, handy points against Charlton and Hull went a long way to securing safety.

It was a slog. For everybody. But nobody more than the boss, who we were told was lucky to have survived.

A season like no other. A campaign most fans will be keen to ignore having watched from their living rooms. But an achievement that should never be forgotten.

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