Shrewsbury verdict: Clear improvements bring Town to cusp of safety
It is quite clear to see that Shrewsbury have progressed in the last five or six weeks.
A timely run of one defeat in five – including this latest success, a great win on the road at Gillingham – has all-but secured Town’s League One status.
After hitting the magical 50-point mark with four games to go it is unlikely that the bottom four will swallow Sam Ricketts’ men even if they, somehow, take nothing from the remaining games.
The job is not yet finished. Town have to battle on until it is mathematically impossible to suffer relegation.
But the impressive progression in the last month or so has got them close to the finishing line when, a short time ago, it looked some way away.
There was a time not so long ago this season when away form looked like it would prove costly.
Going into February, Town had won just once on the road in the league all season, at AFC Wimbledon in November.
Ricketts has since added to that with successes at Peterborough, Southend and now Gillingham.
It looked like Salop would need to rely on their Montgomery Waters Meadow form to secure the points for survival in these final weeks. Ironically and unpredictably it has been the away results that have been the biggest boost.
Ricketts’ side have improved in most, if not all departments.
They appear fitter, stronger, look they are playing with more confidence and are more organised, more resilient. It is almost a team entirely transformed.
They are not world-beaters. Town will not suddenly dispatch everything in front of them – though a big test of that comes on Good Friday at Barnsley – but they look more like a team.
Ricketts has always been big on control and Town play with more of that now. They look more comfortable, confident, less erratic. In Ricketts’ words there is less basketball, less this-way-then-that.
There has always been quality in this group of players. That was added to in January and is now beginning to shine through as the team have a solid platform to build from in games.
The formation has been a big help. A flexible 3-4-3 – generally with the gifted Shaun Whalley and Greg Docherty behind a striker – is working really well.
Defenders have stepped up, Luke Waterfall wins more in the air, Ro-Shaun Williams has a spring in his step, Omar Beckles played his best match of the season, while wing-backs James Bolton and Scott Golbourne are getting more adventurous.
The central midfield pivot of Ollie Norburn and Anthony Grant is setting the tone. The reliable Norburn snaps into challenges and leads from the front with the captain’s armband, pushing his team-mates on.
Grant’s last few months have been indifferent but he has put in two fine displays on the road and Town have won them both. His midfield general performances are a joy to behold.
Whalley and Docherty’s attacking partnership has worked a treat. The talented duo combine brilliantly, they bounce off each other and have an almost telepathic understanding.
Ricketts and co then know that in Tyrese Campbell and Fejiri Okenabirhie they boast lively frontmen who don’t need too many sniffs in front of goal.
Town appear far more understanding of what they’re asked to do. Shift the ball across the pitch and probe for gaps in the opposition’s team, break quickly and also play clever slide passes down the side of turning defenders.
It has been impressive to witness the team, when the pressure had really cranked up on them, respond to their critics and put in ballsy performance to drag themselves out of the mire.
After those disappointing back-to-back defeats at Rochdale and Plymouth in early March it feels like there was a catalyst for improvement and that came in the next game, the dramatic late comeback win against Wycombe.
A dramatic day ended in sheer relief as angry Town fans’ chants were banished by a much-needed late comeback. Ricketts insisted that is the day that luck finally went his side’s way.
Perhaps it was a case of building on that stroke of luck, or it allowed confidence and belief to flood through the veins, as Town’s run of 10 points from a possible 15 has lifted them away from trouble, while many below them are still treading water.
The recent improvements have surely owed some to Ricketts’ using a largely consistent starting XI.
The manager has gone against his beliefs of making a number of changes for each game to keep things fresh – possibly because the run-in, the now-or-never, is upon us. And Town have benefited from its consistency, familiarity and continuity. Players are becoming more aware of their roles and also their colleagues’ moves, where each other are supposed to be.
Big credit must go to Ricketts, his coaching staff and the players for sticking to their guns during training at Sundorne and making tweaks to find the perfect balance at the most crucial time of the season.
It was palpable at Priestfield – something is growing with Town. Whether it is anything more than the belief surging through the Salop players and fanbase is yet to be seen.
There is more of a feeling of togetherness, it was there to be felt when Shrews celebrated both of their goals in front of the euphoric away end, then during the manager’s passionate celebrations.
Almost in the blink of an eye Shrewsbury have gone from nervously looking over their shoulder – they could have dropped into the bottom four if Wycombe won on that day exactly a month ago – to eyeing a top half spot and on the cusp of safety.
The feeling of relief and pride in the job done will be just deserts for an impressive turnaround that has fans believing things are heading in the right direction again.