Verdict: Shrewsbury Town can draw on Bristol Rovers grit for nervy run-in
It wasn’t quite at must-win territory for Shrewsbury Town but it was probably must not lose.
And Sam Ricketts’ men showed they were up for the fight in this League One relegation scrap with a battle-hardened display in the bear pit at Bristol Rovers.
It was not one for the faint-hearted. It was vociferous, ugly, dirty, cagey and angry – it was a true bottom-of-the-table battle, with a lot on the line.
It would’ve been a great place for Town to seal just their second away league win of the season, but poor defending from a set-piece meant that wasn’t to be.
Though Shrewsbury can certainly take heart from the way they out-played their hosts in a comfortable first period and the way they responded after Rovers levelled early on in the second period.
Town didn’t rediscover their impressive first-half form but they showed a desire and fight to stay in the game at a lively Memorial Stadium, where temperatures ran high in the lashing rain.
Lesser sides could have crumbled at that moment. The Gas are in decent form and Shrewsbury on the road for much of this season would have caved in, capitulated and crumbled after being pegged back.
The point taken from the West Country does little to alter the precariously tight position at the foot of League One. Town remain in the bottom four though have climbed a place to 22nd. They are still one point from climbing out of trouble.
Only wins will help them out of the hole for good and this team still need to convince they are capable of securing the number of victories needed to lift themselves out of the mire.
They looked in a good position at the halfway point of Saturday’s encounter but the hosts rallied and found a way through.
Still, a point on the road is never a poor point, particularly at the home of one of your drop zone rivals who are, like Town, scrapping for everything they can get and amid a decent bit of momentum.
Shrewsbury must head into next weekend’s visit of Burton with a must-win attitude at home. Most of their league victories have come at Montgomery Waters Meadow this season and, against teams with little to play for like Burton, they have a shot at another three points.
The training time afforded to Ricketts, to coach and mould his new players how he seems fit without the intense and unwelcome distraction of a midweek fixture, should help the boss as he hunts that winning formula.
What a boost it was to see Shaun Whalley start his first Shrewsbury game since October. Almost four months out of the side for Town’s most creative and influential attacker and he showed the 400 travelling Salop fans – and boss Ricketts – just what they’d been missing.
From the opening moments Whalley was running at scared Rovers defenders, dancing into the box and showing his familiar intent.
It was no surprise to see him linking so well with fellow attacker Josh Laurent and edging Shrewsbury ahead via a deflection before the break. It was a well-deserved lead.
The visitors will have been kicking themselves for the manner in the way former hero Alex Rodman – a Wembley goalscorer in blue and amber last May – had the freedom of the penalty area to head in a corner.
Ricketts needs to do some weeding out there and find the root of the problem from set-pieces and ensure Town do not continue to ship goals from those situations.
As a former defender it must be a real frustration for the Shrews boss.
What was encouraging is that Town showed the spirit, fight and battling qualities to match a side doing the dark arts. They showed the nark, growl and bite to prove they would not be bullied by a side who had the near-9,000 home crowd well on the side in an attempt to win over an inexperienced referee.
It was not an easy afternoon for man in the middle Peter Wright and he copped it from both sets of fans.
For Salop, they had midfielders Anthony Grant and Ollie Norburn attempting to wind up their opposition numbers and it should have worked as Abu Ogogo somehow survived kicking out early on, right in front of the fourth official.
It boiled over against Town late on and the luckless Dave Edwards, only just on as a sub, paid the price. It didn’t look a red card despite some force, on first viewing and Town will appeal his dismissal.
To go with the positivity and encouragement from Town’s streetwise actions was the by now familiar 3-4-2-1.
The back three and wing-backs look far more resolute and composed than a normal back four.
For the first time in league football this season since his arrival Luke Waterfall was left out as skipper Mat Sadler partnered Omar Beckles and debut man Ro-Shaun Williams, brought in from Manchester United last month.
It was a baptism of fire for the young man but he excelled in the first half and, despite the rough and tumble of sub Jonson Clarke-Harris after the break, stood up manfully. He will learn playing these matches and did enough to stay in the team.
The pace and athleticism of Williams and Beckles are a great foil for the leadership and knowhow of Sadler in the middle, while James Bolton and Scott Golbourne offer more decent protection from wing-back areas.
Ricketts’ next conundrum will be how to shoehorn his attacking talent in. Whalley and Laurent playing behind Fejiri Okenabirhie meant there was no room for Greg Docherty or Tyrese Campbell in the Town XI. It could depend on whether Ricketts opts for two strikers on more attackers from midfield. Either way, you would expect Whalley and Docherty both to be involved.
This battling display was a step in the right direction.