My first encounter with the ancient town of Shrewsbury was in the August of 1969 when on a family holiday to Aberystwyth. Shrewsbury was a convenient overnight stopover on our coast-to coast journey and I recall peering through the rain-streaked rear window of the family Ford Cortina as we arrived in the evening rush hour in Shropshire’s county town and sought out the bed and breakfast recommended in the AA guide; I think it was named after a local priory or abbey. Thirteen years later my father and I returned by coach to see Ipswich dumped out of the FA Cup at Gay Meadow. We did the same again two years later. My last visit to Shrewsbury was almost 35 years ago to the day, on 22nd August 1987, to witness a goalless draw in the Second Division. Today my return will re-kindle old memories and reveal the delights of the ‘New Meadow’.
I spent last night at a hotel in nearby Telford, where I drank a pint of Camden Pale Ale, a beer that tasted so heavily of citrus my mouth felt all evening as if I’d eaten a whole tub of lemon sorbet. This morning I take a short walk from my hotel after breakfast and decide that if the residents of Telford were true to the architecture of their town, they would still all have big hair, shoulder pads and the sleeves on their jackets would be rolled up. I didn’t much like the 1980’s and I am happy to quickly make the short hop to Shrewsbury having first filled up the petrol tank of my trusty Citroen C3 and discovered that fuel is 5p per litre cheaper at Sainsbury’s in Telford than it was on Thursday in Ipswich. At the Meole Brace Park and Ride site near New Meadow, it costs a fiver to park and then walk to the football ground. If you pay £2 to ride the bus into Shrewsbury and back however, the parking is free, and you get to ride on a bus, twice. With an eye for a bargain and a bus trip, I arrive early and catch the bus.
Shrewsbury is a fine town to roam around for a couple of hours, with scores of fab buildings to see, I particularly liked the stained-glass windows of St Mary’s church, the ‘new’ market hall and the ‘cosmic egg’ as well as street names such as Mardol, Dogpole, Grope Lane and Bear Steps. At the castle I look down upon the site where Gay Meadow used to be. On Mardol I drink a pint of Castle Eden Golden Harvest Ale (£3.80) in the King’s Head pub, where the bar maid shows me the medieval wall paintings and even takes me out into the street to show me the interpretive signage telling the history of the neighbourhood and how in the sixteenth century it used to be the red-light district. Oddly she also tells me that her name is Maggie May after the Rod Stewart song and that Maggie May was a prostitute; sadly, I don’t get the opportunity to tell her that Maggie May was in truth just an ’older woman’; although the Maggie Mae that the Beatles sang about on the ‘Let It Be’ album was a prostitute.
My mind swimming with the delights of Shrewsbury Town centre, which as medieval towns go really only tops Ipswich due to more exciting topography, I catch the bus back to Meole Brace from where I will walk to the football ground. The New Meadow can be seen across fields from the road outside the Park and Ride and again, after a stroll through a retail park, from a nearby railway bridge; it’s not an architectural gem of a football ground but the cantilever steelwork has a certain appeal. The club shop beckons as I have instructions to purchase a cuddly gnome to add to my wife’s collection of football club soft toys. The shop is much, much, smaller than I had anticipated and with its modest display of replica kits on hangers it has the feel of a walk-in wardrobe. I find the necessary gnome (£9.00) and a match programme (£3.00) and make my purchases. Placing the chosen gnome in a plastic bag, the woman in the shop explains, as she rolls her eyes, that she won’t put my programme in the bag too because she knows that some people like to keep their programmes flat.
With time still to spare until kick-off I watch Town fans watching the team alight from the team bus, and then eat two Marks & Spencer chicken and ham sandwiches (£3.50) that I bought in the retail park. It starts to rain, and I shelter behind a brick wall. Happily, it was just a shower and after enjoying a poster of a former Shrewsbury player called Ken Mulhearn, whose fantastically coiffured hair looks like he may have modelled 1970’s knitting patterns, I take a look at the ‘Fanzone’ which, showing how enlightened Shropshire is, is available to both home and away supporters. Music plays, it’s a song by the Smith’s and I think how it is somehow from a different 1980’s to the one in central Telford. Fans queue for fizzy beer, there is a ‘festival atmosphere’ and in a converted shipping container at one end of the Fanzone an elderly man in replica shirt sits behind a desk, whilst another man in late middle age with a blue and yellow scarf wrapped around his neck announces the result of a prize draw; a woman holding a beer and a man with very poor posture look on; I feel as if I’m at a village fete.
Eventually, I make my way to turnstile 18 and after seeing ever-present Phil who never misses a game, in the toilet, and bumping into a man named John and another called Ray, neither of whom I have seen for at least three years, I take my place in row M seat 18. “Shrewsbury‘s a shit hole I want to go home” chant some Ipswich fans across the aisle from me to the tune of the Beach Boys’ ‘Sloop John B’. I can only assume they have recently discovered irony, because I have found Shrewsbury to be a smashing little place. In the corner between the main stand and the away end I see house martins swooping and diving, I love our summer visitors but sadly have seen very few this year at home. In due course, the game begins, with Town having first go with the ball and for the first time wearing this season’s red and black striped away shirt. Shrewsbury Town meanwhile sport yellow and blue striped shirts with blue shorts, as does their lion mascot who unimaginatively is called Lenny. Ipswich are playing towards something called the Salop Leisure Stand, whilst Shrewsbury are aiming towards the DMOS People North Stand, where I and my fellow Ipswich fans are spending the afternoon.
Town quickly win a corner and it is the Tractor Boys who are making all the noise with someone banging a drum and a child behind me shouting in an ear-hurting high pitch, as children do. Kane Vincent-Young takes the ball around the goalkeeper and looks set to score but is apparently tackled fairly, although those around me believe otherwise and bay for a penalty. “You’re Welsh and you know you are” chant Town fans to the Shrewsbury fans presumably implying that there is something wrong with being Welsh rather than just providing an insight into the number of people in the local telephone directory with surnames such as Davis and Pugh. It is racism, but the English, Welsh and Scots have a reciprocal agreement on abuse enshrined in the Act of Union of 1707. Marcus Harness has a low shot saved at the near post by Shrewsbury ‘keeper Marko Marosi.
On the touchline Kieron McKenna is wearing what from a distance looks like a white cardigan, it’s not to my taste but it shouldn’t affect the result, I hope, although Town are living dangerously at times at the back by insisting on drawing Shrewsbury on to them with daring passes between defenders in our own penalty area. “Your ground’s too big for you” chant my accomplices in the DMOS People North Stand having quickly totted up that there are a good 2,319 empty seats in the 9,875 capacity stadium.
I look at my watch, it’s only a quarter past three, it feels like it’s later. Perhaps to help the passage of time the town fans air a new song to the tune of The Dave Clark Five’s 1964 hit ‘Glad All Over’, which celebrates the fact that. “we’ve got; Marcus Harness”. Sam Morsy gets booked for an unnecessary and at worst petulant kick or trip on Tom Bayliss. Like many third division teams, Shrewsbury’s approach is physical and bullying, but Ipswich are possibly the bigger bullies so far today. But all of sudden, like the sun streaming through the clouds that play across the Shropshire countryside, some superior skill shines through as Tyreece John-Jules slaloms past a defender and scores in to the bottom right hand corner of the Shrewsbury goal; Ipswich Town lead 1-0 and it’s a bit beyond twenty past three. Town are the better team but are now proving it and continue to do so by preventing Shrewsbury from getting anywhere close to the Ipswich goal.
Tyreece John-Jules looks like he is through again on goal but is called offside and the home fans are so quiet the Ipswich supporters dare to chant “Na-na-na, football in a library”, which is something that I would frown upon. As the first half draws to a close Cameron Burgess gives Shrewsbury the gift of a corner kick with an inelegant sky-high clearance, but despite bouts of all in wrestling between opposing players Ipswich manage to clear the ball up field. Two minutes of added on time ensue, which the PA announcer tells us are sponsored by Reece Media, “designed to deliver”. I wonder to myself if the sponsors pay more depending on the amount of time that is to be added on; a first-half with lots of stoppages could potentially end up with spectators thinking of Reece Media for minutes on end. The closing act of the half is Ipswich winning a corner, but as so often happens, nothing comes of it .
I pass half-time eating most of a Nature Valley Oats and Honey Crunchy bar but then I spot a man called Richard who is eating a hot dog at the front of the stand. Richard and I have previously journeyed together to such exciting locations as Coventry, Sunderland, Blackpool and Nottingham and he even wrote this blog once when I was in a coma. We catch up on the intervening years and whilst we do so a large, probably overweight, young man walks by on chubby legs and vomits, and as he does so he mystifyingly appears to try and catch the vomit as it is propelled from his mouth. “Why would you try and catch it?” asks Richard rhetorically.
I threaten to contact Richard about possible future away trips and as drops of rain begin to fall we part, eager to forget what we have just witnessed. At five past four the football resumes and Shrewsbury quickly win a free-kick which leads to an unsightly melee in the Ipswich penalty area, but we are strong today and successfully out muscle the home team. Above the Salop Leisure Stand a small murmuration of starlings swoops and pulses like a weird flying muscle and Tom Bayliss levels up the score for yellow cards after he fouls Lee Evans. In the next sixty seconds a fine move down the left to Leif Davis allows him to send a square ball to Conor Chaplin who shoots from at least 20 metres out with his left foot into the bottom righ hand corner of Marosi’s goal. Ipswich lead 2-0 and it’s another fine goal which Shrewsbury came nowhere near preventing. There could never be another Eric Gates, but if in the inevitable dystopian future our Tory overlords decree for reasons of insane political dogma that there has to be one, I’d like it to be Conor Chaplin. Eric’s goals of course went more top corner than bottom corner.
Town go close to scoring again. Leif Davis is getting loads of space on the left. Kane Vincent-Young gets to one of Leif’s crosses but that’s all, and the ball orbits up and over the away supporters. “ Two-nil to the Tractor Boys” we sing and the noise carries on but without too much very interesting happening on the pitch. Then it changes, and Town dominate, and Sam Morsy shoots over the cross bar from 25 metres. Cameron Burgess receives a head injury and dons a dark bandage, he’s big enough to be our third division Terry Butcher.
It’s gone half past four and Shrewsbury make substitutions because they have to do something; Caton and Bowman for Udoh and Pyke, and Bloxham for Da Costa. Ipswich quickly follow suit. Jackson and Ladapo for Vincent-Young and John-Jules, but not because we have to, just because we can. Kayden Jackson soon wins a corner and Lee Evans heads wide. Harness and Chaplin who have been magnificent are replaced by Edwards and Aluko. Shrewsbury win a rare corner but it’s just a platform for Ipswich to break away up field and win another corner of our own. Above the Salop Leisure Stand the mini murmuration of starlings reappears and settles on the two floodlights that project from the roof of the stand and look down on the pitch. In the same way that twitchers gather to see rare birds, it seems that Shropshire starlings gather to watch decent football. A lone house martin swoops and dives above the pitch, picking off the insects Sam Morsy hasn’t already crushed.
The attendance is announced as being 6,556. “Here for the Ipswich, you’re only here for the Ipswich” chant the now gloating Ipswich fans whilst also being simultaneously and illogically scornful of the ‘small’ crowd. Full-time approaches and after another slick passing move Freddie Ladapo side foots weakly into Morosi’s grateful arms. Six minutes of added on time are announced and after just two, more approach play down the flanks finds Morsy in the middle. Morsy shoots; his shot appears to be going in but is blocked on the goal line, but the ball rebounds to Kayden Jackson whose leg is in the perfect position by accident or design to place the ball perfectly between Shrewsbury defenders and into the net. Three-nil to Ipswich and there’s barely time for Shrewsbury to have their consolation ‘only shot of the game’ which Matthew Pennington helpfully boots directly at Christian Walton. “Head for the corner” shouts an excited and deranged looking young man dancing on the steps in front of me, who clearly has a view on the way to ‘see the game out’. He needn’t have worried. It’s Ipswich who finish the game with another corner kick just to sum up their domination of this fixture.
Euphoria reigns in the DMOS People North Stand as elsewhere the stands empty in silence. It’s a love-in at our end of the ground. Importantly, I get to see that Kieran McKenna isn’t wearing a white cardigan, although I’m not sure what it is, a sweatshirt perhaps? Brimming with the happiness only a 3-0 away win can induce, I head back to the Meole Brace Park & Ride unaware that I wont get out of the car park until 6 o’clock.