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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fan Files: Shrewsbury Town

We like to think we know a bit about what's going on in the Football and Non Leagues here on your favourite professionally unprofessional blog.

However, there's no substitute from hearing from fans themselves. That's where our Fan Files come in.

For the first one of the 2010/11 season, we headed into League Two and one of the early pace setters - Shrewsbury Town.

Matt Crump has been supporting Town for nearly 40 years.

To begin with Matt, what have been some of the highlights of the last four decades?

There have been a great many best moments over the years. Feats of giant killing over top division clubs which always stick in the mind and remain amongst the very best of memories.

A couple of high scoring victories are also great memories. A 7-4 win over Doncaster at Gay Meadow in one of my early seasons. A game that was just 2-0 at half time went crazy in the second half.

That was the first time I can remember us ever getting mentioned by the national media after a game when we featured on Sports Report on BBC Radio 2 while we were driving from the game. Unheard of in those days, and very impressive to a young Town fan.

Also, an incredible 11-2 FA Cup first round win against Marine at Gay Meadow in 1995 - ironically a game played on November 11!

The best moment though has to be the night we won the old Third Division Championship and with it the promotion which led to ten fabulous seasons in the old Division Two.

There had been many postponements that season due to a bad winter and rearranged games after we had reached the sixth round of the FA Cup.

So, it was a balmy Thursday night in mid-May by the time we played our last game at home to Exeter City, with some other clubs - notably Gillingham - with more games still to complete.

Then and now: the promotion team of 1979 went down in Town history

A win would have give us the Third Division Championship, a draw would see us promoted, but a defeat would leave the door open for Gillingham to pip us to the last promotion place.

We scored very early, typically from the famous Shrewsbury near-post corner, but Exeter equalised shortly afterwards to put the home fans back on edge. The Shrewsbury corner did the trick again, and Jake King put us back in front with his second of the night.

We had breathing space after an Ian Atkins penalty sent us in at the interval leading 3-1. David Tong added a fourth in the second half and then we could really enjoy our night properly.

A pitch invasion followed on the final whistle and I can still vividly remember the slightly surreal feeling of me and my mate pre-empting this, along with many other youngsters, by spending the final few minutes of the game sitting on the grass against the Riverside wall so as to avoid the inevitable crush.

What about the worst moments following Shrewsbury?

Relegation from the old Division Two in 1989 hit very hard at the time, but it was losing our Football League status in 2003 which was undoubtedly the worst. Prior to 1997, we had only ever spent four seasons in the fourth tier - three of which were promotion seasons.

So the period which followed saw our worst years since joining the Football League and the relegation in 2003 was very much the low point of those years.

The warning signs had been there for all to see in 2000 when we escaped on the final day of the season by the skin of our teeth with what was, in truth, a much worse side than we had in 2003.

It was a relegation which really never should have happened. The squad had an abundance of attacking talent and did very well in cup matches, notably the famous Nigel Jemson-inspired win against Everton in the third round of the FA Cup. Defensively we were awful though.

Even as late as March 1 after a home win over Rochdale - which proved to be our last win of that season - we were still fairly well placed.

Town celebrate beating Everton - but they ended the season being relegated

There then followed a sequence of games where we often dominated but lost due to very poor defending, often to very late goals.

The footballing gods had looked like they had decided our fate and so it proved when relegation was sealed with a home defeat to Carlisle which, like other several games, we lost from a winning position.

The greatest irony was that our manager Kevin Ratcliffe, a world class centre back in his playing days for Everton and Wales, couldn't address our defensive frailties.

We had far less problems at the other end with Jemson, Luke Rodgers, and Ryan Lowe scoring 50 goals between them!

There was no shock factor for me that evening against Carlisle though. I was resigned to our fate some weeks earlier, which sort of lessened the blow a little bit.

We then went into the unknown in the Nationwide Conference and fortunately - and it was very fortunately - got out at the first attempt.

Maybe some of the misfortune we experienced the previous season had been balanced out and the footballing gods were smiling on us that season?

So then, onto present matters, and six games gone, just the one defeat, and joint-top of the league - it's been an excellent start to the season. Are you surprised by how well it's gone?

I am a little surprised. Mainly because Graham Turner has introduced a new style of play, but also because of the number of new players he has brought in.

For most games this season there have been seven, eight, or nine new players in the starting line-up.

Salop legend Graham Turner is back in charge of the club again after 25 years

As he, and some of the players, have said though, good players adapt to this sort of thing more quickly and we certainly now have several good players at the club.

Our performances have been a little indifferent in some games, but it is also very evident there is a good spirit and work ethic at the club. The players are also clearly enjoying their football and we should, hopefully, improve as the season progresses.

Graham Turner returned to the club during the summer. Was there any part of you against such a club legend giving the job another go?

I had no doubts about Turner as a manager, having been fortunate to see what he was capable of first time around. His record at his other clubs since leaving us also speaks for itself.

I did have some concerns as to whether he would tarnish his legend status at the club should things go pear shaped, and of course that is still a bit of a concern.

Overall though, I thought it was a great appointment and one made at the right time to give the club a boost.

What about your early impressions of this season's League Two overall? What have you made of the opposition you've seen, and how the division might pan out?

I've only seen our three home games in League Two - against Bradford, Aldershot, and Rotherham.

Of those teams, Aldershot and Rotherham looked like very good sides and caused us a lot of problems. They both look like they could do well again this season.

I think the division looks more open this season, with few really big clubs and none with deduction of points. League Two is difficult to predict this time around, and I'm sure there will be the usual surprises at both ends of the table come next May.

There's been plenty to celebrate early on in the campaign at Shrewsbury

As you've already hinted at, you remember well the days when Town were competing in the second tier against the likes of Chelsea and Newcastle. Do you think they could ever get back to, and stay at, that level in the future?

Getting there and staying there are two completely different things for me. Can we get there again? We definitely can.

Plenty of other clubs have shown that it can be done in recent times - but most of those clubs have also not stayed there for too long either.

Whilst there are now a handful of big-money clubs in League One, such clubs make up and the majority in the Championship and it is much more difficult to compete on our sort of attendances.

Scunthorpe have already been mentioned by people within the club on a few occasions in recent times, and they are the example we need to aspire to if we want Championship football.

Realistically, we would be punching above our weight in the Championship - just as we are now punching below our weight in League Two.

I would be happy to get back into League One, which I feel is our natural level, and consolidate there again. It has been much too long since we were last at that level.

Shrewsbury are one of a number of clubs in the lower leagues who have moved ground recently. Where do you sit on the issue of clubs, including your own, re-locating from traditional homes? Must the head rule the heart on such an issue?

Sadly it is a sign of the times, and a necessity for many lower league clubs to have income streams on as many days of the week as possible - not just match days.

Often the only realistic way to do that is to realise the value of your main asset - namely your stadium site - and sell up to get the money to build something more modern elsewhere which provides the means to generate that extra income.

The scenic Gay Meadow had been Shrewsbury's home for almost a century

In our case, there really was very little choice. At Gay Meadow the club was losing a lot of money year on year. There was little scope to re-develop with three sides of the ground enclosed by a school, a railway line, and the River Severn.

There was also a restrictive covenant in place that limited the site to sport and recreation use, as well as the continual problems with flooding. Even if we could have re-developed on that site, funding it would have been a major issue.

The move has given the club a wholly owned, modern, new stadium with facilities that generate income throughout the week and has also left the club debt free.

The club, unbeknown to them at the club, certainly timed the move very well. The Gay Meadow site was sold to developers for housing but the site still lies empty due to the current economic climate.

Had the club been trying to make the same move now it may have proved far more difficult and the price obtained from the sale of the Gay Meadow site many not have been as favourable.

Town have been in the news recently with former player Joe Hart making his competitive England debut.

As someone who has seen a lot of lower division football, do you think he is an exception, or one of a number of players who could progress from the lower leagues and eventually play at the highest level?

Joe Hart was certainly an exceptional talent. I've seen many promising youngsters over the years at the club who have been talked up as potential stars of the future.

To me, Joe had something very special about him which was very apparent after relatively few games. What he had achieved since leaving the club is no surprise to me at all.

I do think there is plenty of talent in the lower leagues and it is sad that Premier League managers mainly look abroad for their players these days.

Now England's Number One, Joe Hart began his career with Shrewsbury

In years gone by, that wouldn't have been the case and lower league players would have been signed by top division clubs much more often.

Importantly, this also resulted in money working its way back down to the lower leagues and encouraged lower league clubs to produce more home grown talent.

It is good to see some clubs still looking down the leagues - like West Brom with Rochdale's Craig Dawson. Sadly clubs like Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal - who often used to sign players in the past - very rarely do so these days.

Finally then, what's the best thing about being a supporter of Shrewsbury Town?

For an exiled fan like me, the link it provides with my home town and with family and friends is very important to me.

Otherwise, it is probably the same sort of things that many fans of other lower league clubs would list. Like the pride which comes from supporting your home town club through thick and thin and the real feeling of being part of something.

Not just supporting some top Premier League club adopted for the kudos of being seen in the right shirt.

Those sorts of fans would never understand or experience the true joy when your club achieves something, or the gut-wrenching feeling at the lowest moment. Or the real camaraderie with of your own club, and the banter enjoyed with opposition fans.

Matt, thanks for talking to us. Good luck for the season.

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