Shrewsbury Town have been the surprise package in League One this season and are challenging for promotion to the Championship.
At the time of writing, the Shrews are in third position, but if they win their game in hand, they will move back into the automatic promotion places. Quite simply, it would be a remarkable achievement if they were to return to the second tier for the first time since the 1988-89 season.
The two teams they are in direct competition with, Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic, have both been in the Premier League in recent years.
This underlines how good the Shrews have been, especially considering the other two contenders will have bigger resources at their disposal. Manager Paul Hurst has built a good squad at New Meadow with a lot of young talent being given a chance to shine.
One of the leaders of the dressing room is Abu Ogogo, who has over 300 Football League matches to his name. The 28-year-old is the club captain and has played a major role in the team’s success this season.
The midfielder spoke to The Boot Room in an exclusive interview, revealing the reasons behind the team’s success:
“The manager has done a really good job and built a winning mentality at the club. He’s brought in good players, but also the right characters as well. I think we are also a lot fitter.
“We work hard every single day and we take that into games. We overrun and overpower teams and we’ve got good footballers. We have belief and quality, and that is a good combination to have.”
At the beginning of the season, few would have tipped the Shrews to challenge for promotion, but the likes of Jon Nolan, Ben Godfrey, Dean Henderson, Shaun Whalley and Ogogo himself have performed consistently to a high standard for the club.
They are a cohesive unit that is tough to break down and they always pose a threat when they have possession. Their individual work rate makes them difficult to play against and their high fitness levels are central to that.
League One is a division that grows stronger with every season. There are a number of big clubs currently in the division and that makes Shrewsbury’s current position even more impressive.
Blackburn Rovers have lifted the Premier League before, while Portsmouth and Wigan Athletic have both won the FA Cup during this century. Charlton Athletic are another club that have a history at a higher level.
Ogogo believes that the division is the strongest that it has been for years, but he is hoping that his team can follow in the footsteps of Yeovil Town and Burton Albion to earn a surprise promotion to the Championship.
“It is the strongest that it has been in a few years. You mentioned four teams there. Obviously you’ve got Bradford as well. The list goes on.
We’ve done very well to be in the position that we are considering we were favourites to go down and how our seasons have gone in the last two years, but we don’t look at the names of the teams we are playing or the size of the club.
It’s eleven vs eleven on the pitch and, to date, we have more than held our own. It’s a very tough league, but we’ve done well so far. But there is a long way to go.
“It is a massive achievement considering how tough the league is this year and how our last couple of years have gone. Going from staying up to getting promoted to the Championship would be a massive achievement. It is possible. Yeovil have done it. Burton have done it. They are a very good example.
“Hopefully we can do what they have and get promoted and stay in the Championship.”
There will be neutrals across the country that are willing Shrewsbury to continue their good form and finish in the top two of League One this season. The modern game is becoming controlled by money at the highest level and it is encouraging to see a well-run club in the Football League earning success the right way.
They have grown naturally and, as Ogogo alludes to, the players go into every game knowing that they can hold their own, even if the opposition are a previous Premier League or FA Cup winner.
One of the key figures responsible for Shrewsbury’s rapid growth is Paul Hurst. The 43-year-old arrived at the club last season and helped them secure their League One status.
It would have been easy for the manager to target survival once again, especially as the odds suggested they would struggle. However, he is ambitious and he has built a winning mentality at New Meadow.
Ogogo was full of praise for the talented coach for the positive impact that the former Grimsby Town manager has had on his own career and the club overall.
“Paul has been very good for my career and all of the players at Shrewsbury. He’s come in and changed our club completely. He’s worked miracles, to be fair, and it’s no fluke that he has been linked with Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday in the past. He is a young, ambitious manager and he will have ambitions of his own to manage as high as possible.
“He is a good man manager. You can talk to him about other stuff outside of football as well. He and his assistant [Chris] Doigy work very hard on the training pitch. They show you clips and parts of your game that you can improve on. He’s been massive for myself and I know he’s been played a huge part for all the other boys as well.”
The progress Shrewsbury have made since the appointment of Paul Hurst was most evident against West Ham United. They played two matches against the Premier League side after forcing a replay in the FA Cup.
The Shrews were the better team in the first meeting, which took place at New Meadow. They had more possession (55.3%) and had nine shots to the Hammers’ four. Ogogo played the full ninety minutes and was one of the standout players on the pitch. The midfielder made five tackles, won four aerial duels and completed two dribbles.
The 28-year-old was understandably proud of the team’s performance that day and believes it will benefit them in the long-term.
“When the draw was made, everyone expected us to get beat by four or five. We played them at home and more than held our own. We missed a couple of chances and we were the better team on the day.
We should have won that game. In the second leg, we went to their place and were five minutes from penalties. We had a good chance to go 1-0 up and dug in. It was backs-to-the-wall stuff for some stages of the game, but that was to be expected. We can take a lot of encouragement and heart from that.
“We played an established Premier League team and it took them a hundred-and-however minutes to score against us, so we can take a lot of positives from the performance. We more than held our own against Premier League players, so when we go back to League One, we know that we can more than hold your own in this division.”
It will have been encouraging for Ogogo to hold his own against Premier League players after failing to break into the Arsenal team as a young player. He was a part of the Gunners’ academy and, although he didn’t feature for the first-team, he did make the bench on a couple of occasions.
“It was great. Arsenal are one of the biggest clubs in the world and at the time, they had world class players such as Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie etc. They play football the right way and like to pass, which is how most people think football should be played.
“It is how I like playing as well, so to be brought up in their facilities, playing with those players and being coached by Arsene Wenger, Steve Bould etc, it was an unbelievable experience.
He spent five years at the Premier League club and his best experience during that spell was an impressive showing during the club’s 2006-7 FA Youth Cup run. The Gunners were seconds away from reaching the final and his performances were rewarded with a first professional contract to continue his development in North London.
Ogogo looks back at that time with great fondness, but he feels young players should now look to play senior football as quickly as possible, rather than playing in the academy set-up.
“For me personally, you should go out and play mens football. Academy football is about development. Of course you want to develop, you never stop developing, but you want to play matches that mean something with points on the line.
“To get out at a young age and play mens football will only be good for your career. I would encourage any young player to get out on loan as early as they can and to play as many games as they can.”
Despite not featuring for the Arsenal first-team, it allowed Ogogo to get his foot in the door of professional football. Towards the end of his time at the Emirates Stadium, he went out on loan to Barnet and performed well in League Two. A
permanent move away from the Gunners shortly followed as he joined Dagenham & Redbridge and he became a central figure at the club for six years before finally ending up at Shrewsbury.
When asked about his future aspirations, the midfielder spoke of his desire to develop further and earn an opportunity at a higher level.
“I want to keep developing as a player, whether that is with Shrewsbury or somewhere else. I’m like every other footballer you speak to, they’ll say they want to play at the highest level, which is the Premier League.
“I’m 28 now and I have a good chance of getting promoted with Shrewsbury to the Championship. I don’t like looking too far ahead. I want to train hard every day and play as well as I can in matches and try to contribute to the team. The rest will take care of itself, but I want to play as high as I can.”
As clear from his comments, Ogogo doesn’t get too ahead of himself and there will be no player in the Shrewsbury dressing room that will be thinking about promotion. It will be each player’s aim, but they will be taking nothing for granted.
Paul Hurst will be the first to make that clear to the players as they are competing with bigger clubs. However, Yeovil Town and Burton Albion have shown that it is possible to win promotion to the Championship as a smaller outfit too. If the Shrews continue to perform with the hunger and consistency that they have shown all season, they will take some beating.