Shrewsbury Town 2019-20 Season Review with Andrew Garden

While Shrewsbury Town’s season has not been a failure, it has been sufficiently underwhelming to necessitate debate over certain areas. We have plenty to discuss, therefore, with Andrew Garden (@kitcub), who runs LGBTQ+ group Salopian Pride (@salopianpride). Be sure to support them as part of our efforts to challenge prejudice and injustice in English football.

Gab: Under Roland Wycherley’s regime, Shrewsbury Town have often been a very shrewdly run club that lives within it’s means at this level – and that has generally dictated expectation. After that compelling promotion push in 2017-18, though and reasonable investment last summer, do you feel expectations have risen?

Andy: Shrewd – I like the pun there! I believe we’re extremely fortunate to have our football club under it’s current ownership – our Chairman, the board of Directors and our CEO, Brian Caldwell, all work very hard in the background to ensure that Shrewsbury Town remains not only a stable and solvent club, but one that looks to operate in the right and proper way not only as a football business, but as a community tool too. I think following the (completely unexpected) antics of 2017-18 under Hurst and Doig, expectations have risen, however somewhat unfairly (in my eyes).

We need to take 17-18 as an outlier – whilst we’d all love to make it into the Championship (no-one more so than Mr Wycherley!), that season gave us not only (in my opinion) England’s future first-choice goalkeeper in loanee Dean Henderson (who gave us fourteen clean sheets and went on to prove his capability in both the Championship and now Premier League, with Sheffield United), but also loans such as Carlton Morris and Ben Godfrey from Norwich who collectively took us to the next level. A combination of good management and a tight knit group of players saw us over-achieve.

Sadly since then following the fallout of Hurst leaving Town (and subsequently losing the core of his playing squad – Payne, Godfrey, Morris, Rodman, Nolan, Sadler, Nsiala and Whalley all played over 50 matches in 2017-18, and of those only Sadler and Whalley remained at the club), we put all our eggs into one basket with John Askey, and though he was backed financially to rebuild the squad I think it’s fair to say he was always fighting a losing battle to try and keep the momentum up post-Hurst (and honestly was the wrong person for the job coming as he did from 34 years solely at Macclesfield Town).

Too many people remember the overall season’s performance, but in reality we were not playing weekly attractive, expansive football, there were a great deal of clean sheets and 1-0 wins ground out as a foundation for that season’s success.

It was a fantastic season but the total lack of expectation certainly helped the team, and we’d do well to remember that as a fanbase. Going back to my point about a club doing things the right way, it’s interesting too that the two teams promoted automatically that season (Wigan and Blackburn) made losses of £8m and £17m respectively. We made a small profit.

We cannot talk about Shrewsbury without mentioning the managerial situation, which has been the cause of a lot of controversy, with the football less than inspiring – although you’ve also shown signs of being a strong defensive team at times this season as well. What is your take on Sam Ricketts?

It’s fair to say from the outset his appointment divided our fanbase. I think he has the potential to be a competent young manager who shows a lot of passion and certainly talks a good game.

I think if anything (and if I’m honest) League One is too high, too soon for Sam. Prior to starting with Town, he’d only had four months of managerial experience, at the helm of our regional rivals Wrexham (who are playing in the National League) and I think he’d have benefited from a little more experience before taking this job. He’s met with supporters groups early in his reign and attempted to be open and transparent about his coaching and methods from the off, but something just hasn’t clicked – off and on the pitch.

Our strong start good but peppered with glimpses of what was to come (a hammering at home to Fleetwood, only just scraping past second-bottom Southend in a 7-goal game, and losing in another 7-goal game to Bristol Rovers) – Sam had a plan. Unfortunately it didn’t seem like he had a plan B, or C for that matter.

We’ve seemed too ponderous all too often, especially when we’ve a squad littered with players who – on paper at least – at this level can play tidy attacking football (earlier in the season the likes of Giles, Goss, Laurent, Okenabirhie, Lang and Cummings).

I would have liked to see Sam let them off the leash a little more, whilst still keeping that resolute and capable defence focused – after all we’ve our early defensive record largely to thank for our league position, but with a win percentage as Shrewsbury manager of just under 30% (Played 78, Won 23 Drawn 28 Lost 27) he certainly needs to get us scoring goals and winning games sooner rather than later!

My outsider’s perception would be that if you added a peak-age, natural target man to this squad, you might have more joy with the initial long ball Ricketts asks for and may be able to play a bit more football in the opposing half… Steve Morison was clearly well past his best when he joined, Jason Cummings is too individualistic, Callum Lang is not a hold-up striker and although Daniel Udoh does have the physical attributes, he doesn’t yet have the maturity to play back to goal. Feel free to challenge me on this as I’m sure it’s an unpopular opinion.

I don’t see us playing with a target man currently – I don’t believe it fits our style of play (or whatever we have that resembles one presently – I firmly believe we’re lacking an identity, but that’s another point entirely!). Morison came in and struggled to make an impact despite being a target man. You’re right in saying that Cummings isn’t the right fit to be a target man, he’s the poacher, the ‘let him play off the shoulder of the last defender’ player for me. Lang isn’t seen by Ricketts to be a forward, he’s largely been played on one wing or the other – but Callum has said himself he’s more of a free-role number 10 type of player (something we don’t cater for tactically at present) and whilst Dan Udoh is more the sort of player that could play the role, not only is he only 22 years of age, but all of his career goals prior to this season have been scored at National North level or lower. He’s certainly a talent, and one to be nurtured and encouraged, but it’s a big step up from the likes of Halesowen Town and AFC Telford up to League One.

There were rumours of Ricketts wanting to bring in Will Grigg from Sunderland in the January transfer window, which to me made little sense as he’s yet another advanced forward / poacher type. Personally (whether we could afford the wages full-time is another matter, as he’s at MK Dons now) – I’d love to have seen Carlton Morris back with us – as a supportive Target Man who knows the club and surroundings, and even at 23 has played consistently as this level before – seeing him line up supporting and holding up for the likes of Okenabirhie (before he moved on), Cummings and Lang would have been really exciting. One thing that is obvious is that we have to create more chances going forward, and our front line need to take their chances when they come. It’s a very worrying fact that even in March when football was halted, we’d only scored 31 goals in the League (only Bolton have fewer) with our ‘top scorer’ for the league Jason Cummings, on four!

You signed goalkeeper Max O’Leary on loan from Bristol City in the summer… he looks a real talent. Tough one to replace?

Honestly? Max has talent but needs to learn to become far more vocal with the defence in front of him. I thnk many would assume this his first season playing football at this level, but I was surprised to find out that he actually made 15 appearances in the Championship for his parent club Bristol City last season. He’s certainly capable of being a solid keeper, but needs to gain more of a presence. His positioning at times has been questioned for some goals this season (but again, is this a lack of understanding between him and his defenders?) but his decision making and shot stopping seems strong. You ask will he be tough to replace? Possibly – though as a club we’ve traditionally done okay with keepers – particularly over recent years (Hart, Daniels, Leutwiler, MacGillivray, Henderson) – and I’m relatively confident in the abilities of our backroom team to continue that trend.

It seems that Aaron Pierre has been your best player this season – he looks a very powerful defender and seems surprisingly good on the ball. Do you think he could play in the Championship?

I think he could quite comfortably, alongside Ro-Shaun. Indeed, I think the gap between the bottom third Championship and top third of League One has closed in recent years and I believe that possibly a good chunk of our squad could theoretically play in the Championship quite comfortably with their ability – we’ve shown that on odd occasions (beating Sunderland and Bristol City, the performance in the home draw vs Liverpool in the FA Cup) but I suppose the reason many of the lads are playing where they are is a lack of consistency in their performances. I honestly think with two or three sensible additions in the right areas though, we’d be challenging at least for the Play Offs.

Behind Pierre, I’d suggest that Ro-Shaun Williams and Omar Beckles have been among your better defenders, whereas Ethan Ebanks-Landell seems to have issues with agility and pace due to his size. How do you perceive your defensive options?

I’d not suggest that Ethan has any issues with his size to be honest. He is around the same height and weight as Pierre – Aaron just has physicality of a different sort. He has power, Ethan has strength. I think defensively, certainly at centre-back we’re fairly strong. Our game plan defensively suffers (in my opinion) for two reasons – 1) in having wing backs who whilst competent in their positions don’t really like to bomb forwards with the awareness to track back as well, as you’d expect from someone playing the role and 2) we have a fairly young team generally but I think we’ve yet to replace the guile and experience older heads (Mat Sadler in particular) bring to the game. I’d say that extends across much of the team too – there does seem to be a lack of natural leaders within the squad.

Ryan Giles’ opportunities at left wing-back seemed to run out after September’s defeat to Fleetwood, from which point Ricketts went with conservative wing-backs in Donald Love and Scott Golbourne. Should he have taken more risks in those areas, or did he simply not have any wing-backs who could excel going forward whilst remaining competent defensively?

Risk-taking doesn’t seem to be something that Sam Ricketts is overly fond of, from his time with us to date. I was never sure that – whilst he could play in the position – Ryan Giles was a true wing-back. Certainly he was very good going forward (and will always be remembered for his goal vs Portsmouth on the opening day of the season!) but he didn’t really have the defensive side to his game, certainly not to the same standard. Golbourne came in and to be fair, grasped the opportunity with both hands. Unfortunately Giles was recalled by Wolves initially to cover for injuries in their squad (officially…) and we seemed confident that he’d come back to us in the January transfer window, but alas that never actually happened (whether there was an agreement that he’d play and he wasn’t? Who knows!) and he’s now on loan at Coventry – it’d be interesting to see how he was doing there, and what role he was playing in their team! On the other side, Donald Love is again someone who lacks consistency in his game – but by and large is doing okay with us (I’m not sure why he was so vilified by Sunderland fans to be honest!) – but we were all excited in having young local talent Ryan Sears back from a lengthy lay-off following a cruciate ligament injury (well, before all things coronavirus!), following his performances at right back last season, he’s someone I think could quite comfortably play at right wing back in both attacking and defensive phases.

You have a lot of midfielders, with none of them starting more than Dave Edwards’ 24 league games. Would you have benefited from more stability in that department? Would it have made a difference having Oli Norburn fit for a whole season?

I’m surprised that Dave has started as many games as he has – it doesn’t seem that way (and perhaps that highlights that he’s not perhaps hit the ground running in the way many of us older supporters hoped he would) – but he certainly does bring a passion and a drive to the middle of the park, it’s great to have a hometown boy who’s a proven international player back at the club, and I hope that he sees a future in coaching here – his enthusiasm for the club is infectious! He’s not actually our top-starting midfielder – that goes to Josh Laurent (41 appearances including 29 league starts and 1 from the bench). We don’t have a great deal of quality in depth across the team really and having injuries to key players like Whalley, Laurent, Vincelot and Norburn hasn’t really seen a settled midfield so far. We’d recently acquired Conor McAleny on loan from Fleetwood and added Josh Vela to the squad which should add some creativity and an extra combativeness to midfield, but we’d only really seen a glimpse of these players before the COVID-19 situation kicked off.

Josh Laurent seems to have had a good season… I like the way he leads the midfield’s press and he seems surprisingly energetic for somebody who is 6’2”. Do you see him as an important player?

For me, Josh is key. Again, there’s the question of consistency as is to be expected at our level, but on his day, I honestly think he’s one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the league – his stamina, work rate and energy is quite superb and at 24 there’s plenty more to come from him. He’d honestly be the first name on my team sheet if I were picking – he was involved in 51 games for us last season, which for me says it all really – whether it’s with us or not, he’ll be playing at a higher level soon. I just hope that he sees a successful future with us, and Town can extend his contract beyond this summer!

How do you reflect on the 2019-20 campaign as a whole? Will you treasure the memory of holding Liverpool at Montgomery Waters Meadow, even if the rest of the season had been uneventful?

It certainly hasn’t been the most memorable of seasons Gab, but personally, I’d rather be securely mid-table in League One than fighting a relegation battle or yo-yoing between League One and Two.

I personally would like us to work on the attractiveness of our football as I think we’ve lost a bit of spark there – we’ve never been a long ball team, since we’ve had the new ground and playing surface we’ve been a team that likes to try and get the ball down and play positive passing game, and the last thing I want to see is crowds dwindling once we’re all back out of lockdown and some sort of normality has been restored!

The performance at home vs Liverpool was fantastic and certainly was one of those nights that sticks long in the memory – mind you the less said about the absolute non-performance in the replay, the better!

Cup games are important to us – not only do they help raise the club’s profile, they’re a fantastic additional income stream – we’ve had some crackers over the last few seasons (Sheffield Wednesday, Leicester, Norwich, Chelsea, Stoke, Wolves, Liverpool…). Whilst they give us extra revenue – through TV money, additional gates, and also bring new faces to the club who then (hopefully!) come back for more, – they shouldn’t ever define a season, the League absolutely remains our bread and butter.

But hopefully we’ll keep slowly building a legacy at Oteley Road – as the years pass we’re making the ‘new’ stadium more of a home, both the club and Shrewsbury Town In The Community continue to do fantastic work across Shrewsbury and Shropshire, and as mentioned before we’re a football club going about our business the right way. As it says on our county coat of arms and the old town and club crest, ‘Floreat Salopia’ – May Shropshire flourish.

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