As the curtain falls on 2018 the mind is cast back to the achievements within the football calendar from the previous twelve months: England’s epic World Cup run; Manchester City’s record-breaking season; Loris Karius’ horrid UEFA Champions League final for Liverpool against Real Madrid to name a few.
Videos and pictures of highs and lows from the year, whether they be personal, professional or recreational are abundant on social media and cause repressed emotions to be revisited, whether reinflicting the agonies or indeed the ecstasies that occurred.
Look deeper into the English football pyramid though and there is a story that started with doubt, continued with strength, pushed on with defiance and ended… in heartbreak.
Love for the club
Sometimes in football things happen that have no right to. A goal that seemingly defies physics; a decision given that has only been seen by one man within a 20,000-strong crowd; a team producing a season they have no divine right to.
And this is why we love ‘the beautiful game’. It is a paradoxical monster that sucks in all those curious enough to dip their toe, dragging them in and refusing to let go from the moment they declare their feelings for a team before spitting them back out whenever it decides they must be punished. Wounded and beaten, they still go back for more, venturing into a deep world filled more often than not with pain, not pleasure.
Shrewsbury Town’s 2017/18 promotion push from League One into the Championship was a story that encapsulated seemingly the whole of the English Football League. Their fight lasted an entire painstaking season, consistently denying the doubters their moment to gloat through their over-my-dead-body approach, their spirit and determination to produce something special and their sheer bloody-mindedness to win for their club.
The key here is within those last two words: their club. Two words that made the relationship complete, the journey scarcely believable and the break-up torturous.
In a normal season those two small words usually only apply to the diehards on the terraces, those that have, do and will follow their club all over the land in the name of passion and dedication until the day they die. People who have seen their club evolve and grow. People who hold an unadulterated love for their club.
Alas, this was not a normal season on the banks of the River Severn. A squad was assembled in the summer of 2017 with the usual optimism that comes from the hearts of fans as opposed to the heads, with the only hopes being that a relegation dogfight could be avoided, unlike the two years previously when survival had only been secured on the penultimate and final days of the season respectively. All calls from outside the county were of relegation and struggle.
New arrivals had been poached by manager Paul Hurst from the footballing hotbeds of Chesterfield, Gateshead, Accrington Stanley and Newport County but to name a few, and the feelings towards the forthcoming season were ones of hope as opposed to expectation amongst fans.
Complete dedication sees an electric start
A 90th minute winner on the opening day of the season against Northampton Town was a microcosm of what lay ahead - late goals became a staple of the side’s success - and as one win became two, which became three and four soon the club were top of the table with games played into double figures, unbeaten until October 28 and sitting comfortably above clubs such as Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers, two outfits whose budget was tenfold that of the Shrews’ and had enjoyed the riches of the Premier League only five or six years earlier.
It soon became apparent that the team taking the field at Montgomery Waters Meadow each week was no ordinary team for this level. They were a team with ability, but moreover, a team who would scrap for one another, fight until the final whistle and who it was painstakingly obvious cared about their club. For whatever reason, everything just fell into place.
They were based entirely on work-rate, utilising a high press for much of the season, and produced a collective sum much greater than their parts, being a working example that hard work truly is the most important commodity in sport, even in the face of much greater financial power.
Within the lower echelons of English football most fans only really demand 100% work rate from players when wearing their beloved badge. A lack of talent can be excused; a lack of effort will ensure you do not last long.
This attitude is an anomaly within modern football players, and is something that is yearned for by supporters up and down the country. Gone are the days when a team would comprise of eleven local lads, it is more common now to see eleven different nationalities than a side consisting of purely players from one town.
Yet this is what fans can relate to.
Players who have an affiliation with their club, who produce performances akin to the levels that fans would if success was to be judged purely on passion and drive. With the rarity of such devout fixation with a club from players today - the average lifespan of a player at a club being on average two years in the lower leagues - many fans are unexposed to the fondness and compassion one is provided with when you get a sense that those eleven players - those eleven people of whom thousands would give thousands to emulate - are fighting for you.
Those of an older generation who have experienced it previously yearn for it, for the halcyon days of yesteryear that gave such adulation when witnessing eleven people giving their utmost for the team for intrinsic pride as opposed to extrinsic benefits. And winning.
For that is the deal-breaker. When success is added into the mix, it produces a cocktail that is impossible to do anything with but love. That same love that has seen them follow their club for years and of which will be the catalyst to continue doing so.
Short-term deals herald long-term love
In the modern phenomenon of loanees and temporary stays, the depressing norm is for such players to display a clear lack of hunger for their club in the small period of time they spend there before moving on once again. Yet once again the trend here was bucked.
Dean Henderson, the goalkeeper on loan from Manchester United, in addition to Norwich City loanees Ben Godfrey and Carlton Morris were mainstays, as much a part of the furniture as anybody else, the overawing feelings of ecstasy etched on all their faces whenever a goal was scored, their true love for the cause plainly evident.
Even for fans who had experienced players fighting for the club previously, this was unchartered territory. With every fist-pumping, red-faced, euphoric celebration wove an unbreakable bond between players and fans. If the season had yielded mediocrity then this alone would have ensured fans were overjoyed. To combine it with unheralded success was unheard of.
As the season progressed everything continued to snowball, with a mean defence being supplemented with slick attackers in the final third. Despite having been top of the table as late as March, the financial clout of the two aforementioned Lancashire sides saw them able to utilise a much deeper squad and thus pip them to the post in the race for the automatic promotion places. The team who had led the race for much of the way, swatting away any doubts as to their ability, had finally succumbed to the giants.
Entering the play-offs and facing a Charlton Athletic side full of confidence, many so-called experts predicted that the exertions of a brutal season of energetic football combined with a poor run of form in the final stretch of games would spell the end of their promotion hopes. You’ve had your chance, but you’ve blown it. Thanks for coming.
How wrong they were.
The team who had by now made a name for themselves in proving people wrong - one of their great motivational tools was a predicted league table stuck up on the wall at their training ground which saw them sit bottom, next to a sign from Hurst pointing at the poster that read ‘we are rubbish!’ - did so once more, convincingly dispatching the Addicks 2-0 on aggregate to set a date at Wembley with Rotherham United.
You see for clubs like Shrewsbury, success on this scale is something that comes around perhaps once every other generation if they are lucky. Their highest finish in the 25 years before had been 16th in League One, with their highest all-time placing being 8th in the old Second Division in both the 1983/84 and 1984/85 campaigns. This was not the norm. It was their chance. Perhaps their one and only chance.
Now or never
Other sides had in recent years competed at the top of League One fleetingly, and following the inability to see the prospects through swiftly fell away.
Tranmere Rovers, Leyton Orient and Chesterfield are all sides that battled at the top of the division yet ultimately failed to achieve promotion. Two are now languishing in the National League; one is in its first season back from exile in the same division. A failure to complete the job meant a very real danger of freefall thereafter.
All of the year’s hard work, blood, sweat and tears was to culminate in a blisteringly hot day in north London. Having ridden in the face of adversity so often for it to become the norm, many expected the Shrews to triumph and take their place in the second tier. It was a case of now or never. The ‘biggest match in their history’, according to Chief Executive Brian Caldwell. The once-distant dream was now so close it could be envisaged, tasted, smelt.
And following 120 painfully hot minutes, the dream died.
All of the ecstatic highs came crashing down, the jubilation of last-minute winners and fighting victories a distant memory as the heroes who had represented their club so proudly over the last nine months lay lifeless and limp in the baking sun, sobbing and despondent. The warriors who had battled so gallantly for so long were human after all.
Within a matter of days following the nadir, any trace of the miracle season had vanished. Gone. All bonds formed in the trenches with one another, developed with backs against the wall, fighting for each other, knowing that the person next to you was battling just as hard for this yearned-after, odds-defying cause conceded to history.
Loanees returned to parent clubs. Stalwarts turned down contracts in favour of pastures new. The manager departed for Ipswich Town little over 24 hours after that gut-wrenching, soul-destroying loss, the wound still oh-so-fresh. The heart ripped out and devoured by the monster that is football.
In the aftermath of the defeat and of Hurst’s move to take over in Suffolk it transpired that he had been in negotiations with the Tractor Boys and even cleared his desk before that final, the very same biggest game in his then-employers’ history. The leader who had built his empire on honesty and integrity was gone in a storm of deceit, the trust gathered by fans in the previous months ruthlessly destroyed and dragged down.
For this was their hero, the man who had made all this possible. The man who had instilled the culture of passion and infatuation for their club. The man who was the architect behind their club’s greatest season in over 30 years. The man who ultimately burned down all that he had built.
A transfer approach for two star players, Toto Nsiala and Jon Nolan, only three days before the beginning of the next campaign that saw the duo hand in transfer requests and ultimately throw the reassembled squad into disrepute was the straw that broke the camel’s back for most fans as far as their former boss was concerned, and those emotions of idolization and worship became permanent hate and rancour.
This was not the planned ending for the fairytale season, and having lived a life of belief in players playing for and caring for their club truly and wholly in a current world full of perceived mercenaries, for it to come crashing down in the manner it did was the starkest reminder of the nature of this brutal game of which millions devote their life to. Dreams may arise but they never last. For this reminder to be hammered home by the man once revered at the head of this charge was the bitterest pill to swallow.
Encouragement from afar
Support grew for the Salopian cause from others within the lower leagues as it represented the classic David vs Goliath battle, a case of an unfancied, written-off team competing and striding step for step with the big boys. This hope of victory was grabbed on to by fans of other clubs as they felt it was a scenario that their club could produce, whoever that may be, and so felt an affiliation to the side that was a representation of themselves.
They had been transformed from relegation fodder to promotion challengers in little over 18 months and were proof that with the right individuals it is possible.
Similarly to the heroic success of Leicester City in winning the Premier League in 2015/16 it acted as a beacon to allow hope and dreams of the smaller teams to flower and prosper, a realistic example of spirit overcoming finances. The only difference here being that the final chapter brought crushing realisation as opposed to uplifting empowerment.
The way in which everything clicked in Shropshire will surely never been seen there for years to come. It was their one chance to reach the relative big time, to make their mark and allow spirit and passion to be tested in a world increasingly shaped by money.
For almost all Shrewsbury Town fans, 2018 will almost certainly be the year that brought the culmination to the best worst season of their recent history.