Shrewsbury Town Season Preview

shrewsburyThe Football Lab interviewed Shrewsbury Town fan Peter Jones, ahead of the new season. You can follow him on Twitter @THEPeterJones

Shrewsbury Town stormed to promotion last season, and finished with a tally of 89 points that would normally have secured the League Two title. Why were you able to bounce back from relegation so emphatically?

By finally getting to grips with the fact that we needed some long term thinking behind the scenes instead of the previous two years of quick fixes and naivety. We did what we should have done in League One and invested in permanent signings with experience at a higher level instead of a mix and match of youthful loanees who thought they were doing us a favour by being here despite having proved nothing at their parent clubs. Massive credit too has to go to Micky Mellon who has bought completely into the club and the town and given us a real sense of pride again.

Manager Micky Mellon appointed a new fitness coach, Andy Hodgen, when he first joined the club. Were increased energy levels a reason why Shrewsbury scored 31 goals – and conceded just 7 – in the final half hour of matches last season?

Absolutely, it was almost bizarre seeing so much grit and fight in the side after so many timid capitulations the prior season. It was evident right from the start of the season when we came from a goal down to beat Tranmere with two stoppage time goals and the fact we were able to carry it on right throughout the season was a huge bonus. What we sometimes lacked in guile and creativity we certainly made up for in fitness and heart.

In each of the Football League’s divisions, at least one team has won promotion playing 3-at-the-back. Do you feel this system has benefited Shrewsbury? Should more teams use it?

It’s certainly my preferred combination if the personnel is available and we were very fortunate to have four excellent options in Goldson, Ellis, Grandison and Knight-Percival. It’s certainly benefited us and is light years away from the nightmare centre back pairing of Winfield and Makindawire that still haunts me to this day.

Goalkeeper Jayson Leutwiler broke a club record for number of clean sheets (23) last season. Obviously this was down to good defending too, but just how pleased where you with his performances?

I’m definitely a fan but he does still have his doubters amongst the fanbase despite his fine record. He does have a tendency for some heart-stoppingly erratic decision making and I think UK fans are pre-programmed to be sceptical of keepers who punch the ball but for me his record speaks for itself – the keeper position was a total coin toss before the season and he’s made the jersey his own. Whether he can step up another level remains to be seen but so far a definite thumbs up.

Right-back Matt Tootle was once touted as the next big player to come out of Crewe Alexandra’s academy, but injury disrupted his progress last year. Do you think Micky Mellon can get the best out of him?

I think Tootle is our most interesting signing, he’s a name I’ve been aware of for some time and at one point he seemed set to be their next cash cow after Nick Powell and Luke Murphy – in that sense, the fact that he’s suddenly available to a club in the same division for free suggests a sharp decline. However as you allude to there are reasons behind this and I have no doubt a fit and ready Matt Tootle will still be a real asset and represents a step forward from the inconsistent Cameron Gayle.

Centre-backs Mark Ellis and Nathaniel Knight-Percival joined the club last summer from Crewe and Peterborough respectively. How do you think they fared?

NKP was my player of the season before his unfortunate injury, he was absolutely sensational and we can only hope we can reach the same heights when he is ready to return – it’s been quite a long way back. As for Ellis, I had reservations over him when the signing was announced and it did take him a little while to establish himself but he deserves great credit for the way he stepped in and took his chance when it came – didn’t look out of place at all and was arguably our standout defender in the run in.

Junior Brown signs on a free transfer from Fleetwood. He is known to be a winger, but do you think he will play as a left wing-back?

Assuming we are sticking with the same formation, and our pre-season suggests we are, that would seem the most likely alternative. It seems Mellon has doubts over the ability of Mickey Demetriou to step up another level and Brown seems the only obvious replacement. I feel a bit for Demetriou, he had one or two poor games but I thought he’d done enough to at least earn a squad place but with funds for wages at a premium, I guess he is more expendable than others.

Some might say that the signings of Martin Woods, Darren McKnight and Shaun Whalley are slightly underwhelming. Do you see them as ‘squad-fillers’, rather than players who will improve the quality of the starting line-up?

I think you have hit the nail on the head here and it is a slight cause for concern – a fair bit of our summer business feels more than a little bit bargain basement and that naturally creates a few nerves given how poor our recruitment was last time in League One. Admittedly on this occasion the bulk of our established players are under contract instead of having to re-build a new squad after losing the likes of Sharps, Cansdell-Sherriff, Collins and Wroe but even so, several of the signings don’t on paper seem to improve the quality of the squad. Part of the problem is that in luring players from a higher level for our L2 campaign, we seemed to be quite relaxed about dishing out clauses allowing bonuses and wage rises for promotion – this has in turn taken quite a chunk out of our L1 budget. We are still trying to shift a few players (Demetriou, Caton, I’d expect Vernon) just in order to be able to afford to keep Grandison and Akpa-Akpro. That said, a better situation than the one we found ourselves in last time.

Last season was a proud one for Shrewsbury’s academy, as graduates Connor Goldson and Ryan Woods were among the team’s most consistent performers. Are there any more youngsters coming through that we should watch out for?

Well arguably our most promising youngster is likely to be strutting his stuff elsewhere – Josh Ginnelly received rave reviews for his outings in the youth and reserve teams last year and even made a handful of sub appearances in the league however, regrettably for us, his agent has been in his ear and he hasn’t even given us the courtesy of a response to our offer of a first pro contract. He is currently AWOL from training and has played a trial game at Norwich and is also attracting interest from Celtic and Wolves amongst others so I suspect we should be bracing ourselves for a lengthy tribunal battle. In happier news, young goalkeeper Callum Burton has a decent shot at being our number two keeper this year, another young keeper Shaun Rowley has bagged himself a loan to Nuneaton where I think he will progress well and Dom Smith should kick on this season too.

Forward Tyrone Barnett only played a full 90 minutes on 2 occassions, and Shrewsbury lost both of those games. Do you think his sizeable presence at times prompts too many long balls? Is he better saved as a Plan B substitute, for when the initial passing game does not work?

It was a signing I didn’t think we needed to make and I remain unconvinced about how he fits in – he did show a few flashes of brilliance but as you allude to I don’t really approve of the switch in style we adopt when he is on the pitch and I’m not convinced our other strikers act as an especially good foil for him either – if we had a striker with pace to burn there might be some potential but we don’t so I agree, not much more than a Plan B for me, although I hope to be proved wrong.

Striker Liam McAlinden scored 3 goals in 9 appearances, 4 of which as a substitute, on loan at Shrewsbury during the 13/14 season. Based on his performances then, are you pleased you have got him back on loan?

He was one of the better loanees in what was a pretty grim period and my suspicion is that this may be a loan with a view to a permanent move. He still needs to prove his long term viability but I’m happy enough with it and I’m interested to see what the pecking order will be as far as the strikers go.

Shrewsbury aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the League One season as a whole? Who do you think will do well? Which teams might struggle?

I like the look of some of Wigans signings – I’m a big fan of Michael Jacobs and I’m looking forward to seeing how Max Power steps up too, the only question mark for me is how Caldwell continues to adapt to management – if he can crack it, I see them as the team to beat, whilst I think Adkins will be the man to finally take Sheff Utd back to the Championship. In terms of a dark horse, I fancy Bury to be the pick of the promoted teams – they’ve recruited well and don’t see any reason they can’t look at a crack at the playoffs. In terms of strugglers – Blackpool seem an obvious candidate and I fear for Crewe too, but there’s plenty of teams that could be in for long seasons – ourselves included. Chesterfield are my outside tip for the drop.

You said last season Shrewsbury would finish either 2nd or 3rd, and were proved corrected as they finished 2nd. What is your prediction for this campaign?

Not as optimistic as last season certainly! There are certainly concerns – our record away to our fellow top 7 sides last season was dire and there were several occasions where we lacked the guile or imagination to break down sides that set up defensively against us, so we are going to have to step it up in that regard. The core of the side is still intact and I think should just about be able to keep our heads above water but I don’t see us kicking on and challenging near the top – survival and consolidation is very much the aim of the game this season in my opinion. I’ll take a punt and go with 17th, and I’d be pleased enough with that. I just hope that if we have a slow start we don’t lose our nerve too quickly – Mellon has earned a fair crack at the division.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Shrewsbury Town won promotion from League Two last season, and deserve credit for the style of football played, as well as their nurturing of young talent, namely Ryan Woods and Connor Goldson. However, underwhelming summer signings indicate sideways steps, rather than forward ones. 18th