With Gillingham already promoted to League One, and Bradford City and Northampton having secured a playoff spot - the top end of League Two is only interesting for the fight for either automatic promotion vs playoffs for Port Vale, Rotherham, Cheltenham and Burton. It’s at the other end that things are spicy - with my beloved Torquay needing a point against Brizzle (Bristol, Rovers version) to secure membership of the 92 for another season. But I digress …
A great friend of mine is a lifelong supporter of Shrewsbury.
For the longest time he lived in Telford and his quality of life was terrific, the Shropshire countryside is amongst the most beautiful England has to offer and when you think of England’s green and pleasant lands, you could see it in a postcard of Shropshire. There’s Ironbridge too, and if you don’t fancy marveling at that feat of human endeavor, well there’s the Merrythought Teddy Bear Factory - makers of Teddy Bears taken to bed by English kids since the early 1930’s. Fantastic pubs too, since Shropshire has a fine tradition of brewing - I fondly remember The Three Tuns in Bishop’s Castle, a balmy Sunday afternoon, freshly cut grass, bees buzzing by. With all this to enjoy 24/7 and with a beautiful young family and a great job, loving friends, why would mild mannered Chris want to kill anybody ?
On the 29th of April 2003, the 3-2 defeat at home to Carlisle confirmed what many had been expecting. The Shrews were down, and out of the Football League - no longer members of the top 92. Chris’s mood had grown progressively darker since the 5th April when they earned a point at home to Swansea with a dire 0-0 draw. Even the presence of Phil Jagielka’s older brother Stephen for The Shrews couldn’t brighten the last 8 games of the season. Chris - like all supporters in this position understands that it is unlikely that you’ll survive, momentum is against you. Of course, at the same time, you hope you’ll nick something from this game. Then you go 1-0 down and it’s here we go again. The dark cloud was over Gay Meadow. Though Shrewsbury hadn’t won a game since the 1st of March, league survival must have seemed possible - there were 16 games left to play. Shrewsbury had a terrific cup season, they drew Everton at home in the FA Cup third round, won that game and then got Chelsea at home in the fourth. The Chelsea team sheet 26th January 2003 : Cudicini, Melchiott, Gallas, Terry, Babayaro, Zenden, Lampard, Petit, Le Saux, Gudjohnsen, Zola. Joe Cole subbed Celestine Babayaro early in the second half, and it was Mike Riley who reffed the game - must have all seemed totally big time. Even when Gianfranco Zola put the first of his brace past Ian Dunbavin the occasion must have been quite something, with the bit of extra cash from a great cup run, we’ll be looking good. It ended 4-0 and that was that for the Cup.
The Shrews still had the matter of the LDV Vans Trophy - The Football League Trophy - Wednesday 29th January 2003, was the Northern Semi-Final against Crewe, which The Shrews won 4-2, so on to the two legged Northern Final, first leg at Carlisle. Adam Rundle’s first leg goal was enough to give The Cumbrians the 1-0 Victory at Brunton Park. Shrews boss Kevin Ratcliffe was able to use the loss as a motivation - The Shrews won their next league game 3-1 at home against Rochdale. That was the 1st of March and their last points earned from a win in the 2002-2003 season.
Chris explained that there was nothing like being relegated out of the league, if somebody had said something - especially on the walk away from the ground, he’d have hit them.
Sick of the game, sick of the club, sick of the empty promise, I hope you never have to go through it, mate - he said.
Though it’s been a while since Torquay and Plymouth have been in the same division, it was always Torquay United and Exeter City that were the Devon rivals. And while you never really wish ill on a fellow supporter, who ever they support, there is the banter and the chanting, the mocking hand gestures and the who-are-you’s. The other team to go down to the conference with Shrewsbury in 2002-2003 was The Grecians, how poetic. And while I still look for the Carlisle results every week after many a freezing Saturday afternoon at Brunton Park when I lived on the Warwick Road just 10 minutes walk from the ground, it was Carlisle’s late season form that sent Exeter down.
Torquay had spent the 2002-2003 season flirting with a play-off position, our end of season form insufficient to get us into the top 6. The will-they-won’t-they of the top quarter of the table, mere points separating fortunes - sometimes not even - goal difference could decide whether you have a shot at a Wembley Play-Off Final to whether you start the summer break early in mid-table obscurity. In the Premiership the thinnest sliver of goal difference could be what gives you a crack at the Europa League where Fulham were so exciting this last season or even The Champions League, albeit via a qualifier. Of course, there’s the money - from TV and from gates, but playing in Europe enables the retention and the recruitment of players, typically keen to match themselves against the best there is. It may well be - and usually is - that final third of the season battles and outcomes are decided by games between teams fighting relegation and those pushing for Europe. That the team below you (and you ALWAYS do the math) still has to play the team who - in second place - is still pushing for the trophy. Will a team that has yet to play one of your opponents in the relegation battle put out a weaker team since they have nothing to play for in the League but are still in Europe ?
Is it financially better to go up to League One via a Wembley final and a round of playoffs, or is that too risky - are all bets off in the round of playoffs - you might not make as much money for the inevitable rebuilding that will be necessary if you move up a division, but automatic promotion at least has a guarantee attached.
The bitterest taste is certainly of relegation, and while you have to endure your mates telling you that football in Histon, Hayes, Tamworth, Barrow, Altrincham, Stroud or Salisbury won’t be so bad, there are moments that are close. Torquay were relegated to the Blue Square Premier League, and sure enough had to endure their football in the old conference towns. But once you’re over the disgrace of relegation, and the fixture list comes out it all starts to change, the old unrealistic optimism returns, and if the manager picks up a couple of experienced lads - well, this season down in the basement might not be so bad. 2007-2008 was Torquay’s first season and after a pretty good start we bottled a couple of games, but mercifully ended a long campaign in the play-offs. Who was our play-off semi-final opponent ?
Exeter suffered the heartbreak in 2006-2007 of getting to the play-off final only to be beaten by Morecambe, and it all must have felt like deja vu when after the first leg of the 2007-2008 semis they trailed Torquay 2-1 at home. Exeter had to make the short trip up to Plainmoor knowing they had to win, and big. The Plainmoor faithful felt the job was all done when Tim Sills nicked the ball to Chris Zebroski on the edge of the 18 yard box directly in front of goal. 11 season Gulls veteran Kevin Hill was at full stretch in front of the Plainmoor Grandstand, Zebroski slipped the ball to his left under pressure and Hilly hit it first time into the back of the net. 3-1 up on aggregate now, Gulls fans understandably went bananas, the Popside erupted. Ah, the poetry, beat The Grecians away and then seal the deal with a first time hit from a player who’s played all his career in professional football at the club - ELEVEN SEASONS ! Equalling the club’s appearance record. Who are you ? Who are you ? Who are you ? The bitterest taste is not necessarily relegation, it is knowing that your team took their foot off the gas, thought they had the job done, started smoking cigars and then gave up 4 goals in 20 minutes all in the rain.
Watch it through your fingers if you dare http://youtu.be/OszH6h0QXBA
It was Exeter that went on to beat Cambridge in the Wembley final ending a four season stint in the conference, three years longer than Shrewsbury who returned to the fold of the 92 via the play-off final at the Brittania Stadium, since the new Wembley was unbuilt. Shrew’s goalie Scott Howie will live on the experience for the rest of his career, as the game went to penalties on May 16 2004 and he saved 3 consecutively.
Of course, in the ‘who-are-you ?’ stakes, Torquay were only in the Blue Square for 2 seasons, so we’ll hold that over The Greeks for a bit yet. Hopefully - with at least a point aganst Bristol Rovers normal service will be resumed against our local rivals next season, since they were unlucky to just miss-out on a play-off spot. Though I dislike St James Park (not the real one) I will be happy for our lads to play there next season, since it means we’ll have survived.
I’m sure Chris is happy that with Portsmouth, Hartlepool and Bury already down, Shrewsbury at least have another season in League One to look forward too.
Come on you yellows.