I arrived at Shrewsbury, my second visit here in recent years, and was once again reminded of the club’s attempt to add some sort of character and hostility to what is essentially a “just a ground” in Shropshire.
Trademark drum banging, banners stating “Legends of 79” (lest we forget their old third division title glory that year), “Breathe on ‘em Salop” (unorthodox, but still), and “Turn it up to 11” (initially, thought this was a reference to the town’s biggest selling artist T’Pau but it is in fact a Spinal Tap reference, with fictional bassist Derek Smalls a Shrews fan).
Add to that the wealth of advertising around the pitch that was so localised, I’m pretty sure on my blind side, they would’ve read “dog walker needed”, and “baby sitter wanted”. But all this points to the fact that this is the currency we currently operate in, and continue to show no sign of leaving anytime soon.
Pre-match there was mixed reviews to the starting line-up, with Corry Evans and Elliot Embleton dropped. I found this encouraging as they were two significant under-performers in Saturday’s home win over Ipswich. So maybe Lee Johnson was seeing what we were after all?
Then the weekly mystery of what the formation was, and which midfielders were playing where? Luke O’Nien retained at left back was a positive, as was Carl Winchester moving into the centre of the park. However, this resulted in Lynden Gooch moving to right back in a flat back four, which left us grossly exposed on the right with Aiden O’Brien in front of the American.
“Price-Tag” Pritchard got a start wide left, a position by his own admission he likes, and sees the benefit of being able to both go down the line and cut inside. And it was that ability to cut inside on the edge of the box which saw Pritchard put the lads 1-0 up, a fine strike from the corner of the box midway through the first half.
Sadly this wasn’t the catalyst for the lads to kick on, and time and time again the midfield appeared to be getting overrun, as the tricky Daniel Oduh caused problems in front of Sunderland’s box. Gooch did however come close with a left-foot strike which forced a fine save. A lengthy delay as O’Nien was once again down with another Oscar-nominated display of faking death meant a pre-half time pint before witnessing a red card for the home team. From my view walking back to my seat, it appeared David Davis went over the top of Nathan Broadhead. Davis was given his marching orders much to the disbelief of the home fans.
Early in the second half Sunderland were wasteful in front of goal, and continued to attack without testing the goalkeeper – a specialist, I might add, in the art of six-yard box gardening to drag out precious seconds. With time, Salop’s confidence grew, pressed on, and even with the man disadvantage forced an equaliser through in-form Oduh.
Johnson said it was a “wonder goal”, but how he was allowed so much time on the edge of the box for the ball to sit down, was very hard to make sense of. As per, the confidence levels dropped to losing streak levels and substitutions were made in a bid for three points. The aforementioned weakened right-hand side was dragged off, and Winchester was moved back to right back affording Evans ample opportunity to pass sideways in the centre circle, a personal favourite of the Northern Irish international. Width was added through Leon Dajaku and Aiden McGeady, however the latter was rendered useless with ten minutes to go through an injury that limited the Irishman to operating at walking speed. Time was up, 1-1 the end result.
As the final whistle blew and I made my way out of the ground and across one of the all too familiar retail parks that surround English football grounds, I had the overwhelming sense of deflation at further points dropped. The post-match socials were going full throttle on the managerial post-mortem, so I quickly got a first listen to Lee Johnson’s appraisal of the lacklustre draw for the travelling Black Cats.
My deflation turned to disbelief as I headed back north, as when asked if LJ was expecting a Crewe-esque performance tonight, the head coach qualified that result by saying Crewe had a “very young side” and we were at our “peak”. So is our ceiling for a good away result that only on our best day, against a bunch of kids, can we churn out a result that in any other parallel universe would be expected?
A couple of weeks ago LJ made comment that players need to be honest with him about their fitness, and in doing so appeared to throw McGeady under the proverbial bus. Two sub appearances later and the absence of the captain’s armband, you start to worry whether the head coach has lost the dressing room. Pritchard, for me, was our standout player on the night, yet was taken off early.
Johnson wants more out of out the former Huddersfield man, but surely that involves being on the pitch. Then when asked about talisman Ross Stewart, LJ described a dip in his recent performance, with the need to increase upper body strength and “liven up”. In the interest of balance this was quickly followed up by a scattering of compliments and how many kilometres he ran against Ipswich!
Johnson will be massively under pressure now to avoid a Kyril P45, with nothing less than a win and performance against Cambridge on Saturday to setup back to back home games against Oxford and Morecombe. Let’s not forget the Director of Football/Head Coach structure is there to allow for a fluid transition of coaches without wholesale changes in numbers. The fact that LJ believes we should “respect the point” at a “tough place to come”, makes me think that maybe he isn’t reading from quite the same script as his team’s loyal supporters.