By Gary Prewett.
Without a doubt this season’s surprise team has been Paul Hurst’s Shrewsbury Town. Having struggled last season to stay in the Division they were short odds on relegation but having taken an early lead at the top of the Division the Shropshire team has shown great resilience and look certain to be at least in the Play-Offs. Rovers’ visit to the Montgomery Waters Meadow on 17 October saw them succumb to a 4-0 home win.
In their last League game, the Shrews showed their promotion credentials when the completed a double over Portsmouth at Fratton Park. Craig MacGillivray made only his third league start of the campaign between the sticks with regular keeper, Manchester United Loanee Dean Henderson suspended. MacGillivray was barely tested in the first half. The home fans were on the back of referee David Coote especially when he did not award a spot-kick for what they perceived to be a handball in the area by Town winger Shaun Whalley.
It was Whalley's low corner that gave the away team the lead as it reached James Bolton at the far post and left him with a simple poke over the line. Portsmouth's Adam May and Gareth Evans, and the Shrews Carlton Morris, picked up bookings before the break amid a hostile atmosphere.
MacGillivray made some superb saves shortly into the second period, clawing away substitute Brett Pitman's effort, a Matt Clarke header and a long-range strike from Kal Naismith as Pompey piled on the pressure.
Agonisingly for them, Pitman had a strike deflect onto the crossbar late on and May was sent off after a second bookable offence. Shrewsbury also had Alex Rodman cautioned for kicking the ball away after a foul, and Stefan Payne given a yellow after the final whistle for an altercation with a Portsmouth player.
Speaking after the game Hurst said, "I quite liked the manner in which we won, I feel like there has been, on the outside, a few doubters. To come here to a big club, one with its own ambitions of getting in the play-offs, with a fantastic home record and great support and keep a clean sheet is big.”
"We defended well. We had a bit of luck when they hit the bar but I thought we always carried a threat, as well. I thought we might get a second at some point. I'm delighted, it's a great afternoon for us and for the travelling fans making that long journey home. It's a very good day. Now we have the strange occurrence of a free week before going to Bristol Rovers."
Historically Rovers record against the Shrews is a good one with 29 wins, 14 draws and 19 defeats. The first meeting didn’t take place until the 1951-52 season and it was the Shropshire team who came away from Eastville with a share of the points with a 3-3 draw and a 2-1 victory at Gay Meadow. Len Pickard, Vic Lambdon and Ray Warren scored for Rovers in the home game, with Harry Roberts nothing all three of the Shrews goals. In the game at Gay Meadow Vic Lambdon was again on the score sheet for Rovers and Martin Reagan and Arnie Jackson scored for the home team.
Perhaps the most memorable and certainly the one with the biggest attendance was the very first Wembley Play-Off Final at the end of an exhilarating 2006/07 season. It took an exciting sequence of ten unbeaten League games, including the late run of five successive victories, to get Rovers to their date at the new Wembley. It placed Rovers alongside Chelsea as teams who played Finals at both the Millennium and Wembley Stadiums in the same season.
Games between the clubs that season had been very tight. Before the Final, Rovers had won two of the three games and yet only two goals were scored in total. The Final of course turned out to be something of a goal feast with Richard Walker (2) and Sammy Igoe giving Rovers their 3-1 victory as Gasheads almost literally sucked the last goal over the line in stoppage time.
Rovers equal best league victory was the 7-0 thrashing of the Shrews in the 1963-64 season. Bobby Jones (2), Harold Jarman (2), Alfie Biggs (penalty) Dave Stone and Johnny Brown were Rovers scorers. Rovers were 4-0 up after just 16 minutes. It was some kind of ‘payback’ for a 7-2 dumping the previous season, Frank Clarke (3), Jim McLaughlin (3) and Arthur Rowley scored for the Shrews and Keith Williams and Harold Jarman for Rovers.
Transfer news from Shropshire reveals that Sam Jones’ move from Grimsby was not announced until around 20 minutes after the 11pm deadline. He was Town's third addition of a hectic deadline day for Hurst. Jones has shone for he boss's former side Grimsby and netted 13 goals for midfield in his 12 months with the Mariners.
Hurst said on the former non-league man: “I think we’ve got someone that’s hungry and ambitious. He’s at a decent age, probably a little bit of a later starter, so I think there’s still improvement there and his goal return has been pretty healthy, so he’s a good addition that we are looking forward to working with.”
“It was a bit of a rush, but we’ve got it over the line and he’s another good addition to the squad. He brings an attacking threat. I think he’s capable of playing in a couple of positions in that attacking area and from midfield, so I’m pleased that we’ve got more options going forward and that’s really what today’s been all about for us.”
“I think defensively we’ve been very strong and I was just trying to add some quality and something a bit different to us and Sam’s one of those that can do that."
His signing was Town's fifth in the January transfer window defenders Max Lowe and Luke Hendrie, and attackers Abo Eisa and Nathan Thomas also joined.