After a poor 18th place finish in League One last season, Shrewsbury Town have had a pre-season which demands respect.
The Shropshire-based side have won four consecutive home friendlies in two weeks, each against Championship opposition.
During this period, Paul Hurst’s men have beaten promotion hopefuls Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers, as well as Cardiff City and Burton Albion.
Perhaps even more impressively, the League One outfit have conceded just two goals across all four matches, turning New Meadow into something of a pre-season fortress.
Good pre-season form doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good season. Despite the club’s impressive showings, Shrewsbury Town go into the 2017-18 campaign as most bookmaker’s favourites for relegation.
The question facing Hurst’s side is, can they build on their current good work when the actual season begins next week?
A third successive relegation battle is the last thing the club want this season. The best way to avoid that fate is to start the season strongly and win your home matches.
The Shrews open their campaign against Northampton Town, before facing AFC Wimbledon, Rochdale, Oxford and Gillingham.
Of their first five opponents, Oxford pose the biggest threat, but the other fixtures are winnable.
Northampton, who they face at New Meadow on Saturday, finished just two places above the club last season. Paul Hurst will know a victory over the Cobblers is just what his side need.
Making New Meadow a fortress in League One, as it has been during pre-season, would ultimately keep Shrewsbury in League One.
It is very rare that you see a side that is difficult to beat at home relegated from any division.
Whilst the loss of Adam El-Abd and Olly Lancashire will not have helped the club, who struggled defensively last season, Matt Sadler, Aristote Nsiala and Junior Brown have proven to be very useful players.
During pre-season they have displayed they are able to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Ruben Neves, Kenneth Zohore and Ross McCormack, which should give Shrewbury fans hope.
If Hurst can make Shrewsbury difficult to break down this term, which they’ve proven they can be, relegation fears will soon fade.
Released by Millwall in 2010, Omar Beckles in League One Team of the Year
The defender has been in fine form for Shrewsbury Town this season and Millwall will be gutted he isn’t at the club.
The League One Team of the Year was announced earlier this week, with the likes of Nick Powell, Dan Burn and Bradley Dack included.
Another name in the XI was that of Shrewsbury Town defender Omar Beckles. He was obviously over the moon about the inclusion, as he demonstrated on Twitter:
— Omar Beckles (@BecklesOmar) April 3, 2018
He has every right to be proud of himself. Beckles has had to fight the hard way for this accolade, after being released by Millwall as a youngster.
He was at one point highly-rated at the Den. Millwall took him to Republic of Ireland on tour in 2009 – in a squad that contained current Millwall boss Neil Harris.
The nearest he came to making his Millwall debut was a place on the bench for a League One clash against Stockport County in October 2009.
The London side let Beckles go at the age of 18. Millwall did not offer him a new contract in 2010 and from then on came the hard graft which has got Beckles where he is today.
The 26-year-old headed to Spain, joining the Glenn Hoddle academy and playing for Jerez Industrial.
After his return to England, he played in non-league football with the likes of Boreham Wood, Kettering town, Billericay, Histon, AFC Hornchurch, St Albans City and Aldershot Town.
In 2016, he headed to Accrington Stanley, finally getting back into the pro ranks before joining Shrewsbury Town last summer.
Beckles, who has played at left-back as well as his favoured centre-back this season, has now established himself with the League One promotion chasers.
Millwall will, of course, be kicking themselves that such an impressive player was allowed to leave eight years ago.
However, sometimes players are simply late bloomers. Beckles is now hoping to guide Shrewsbury to the Championship this summer.
It is a tough battle, with Wigan and Blackburn also in the fight for automatic promotion.
Millwall are also looking to go up, although their chances are certainly less likely.
If neither team wins promotion, Millwall would be making a shrewd move by bringing Beckles back to the club.
It’s just a shame he did not develop quickly enough for Millwall to reap the rewards themselves this season.
Exclusive: Abu Ogogo – Shrewsbury promotion hopes, Paul Hurst and Arsenal education
With Shrewsbury Town currently exceeding all expectations, occupying third place in the race for automatic promotion in League One, The Boot Room caught up with club captain Abu Ogogo.
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.
Shrewsbury Town 0-0 West Ham: Three talking points from Montgomery Waters Meadow
West Ham United were fortunate to escape from a tricky away match against Shrewsbury Town with the tie still alive and heading for a replay. David Moyes made several changes, but the team that he put out was a strong one with a number of regular starters being selected to play. It was surprising that the visitors created so few chances and looked lacklustre throughout, especially in the attacking half.
Although the Premier League opposition didn’t play well, that shouldn’t discredit the performance from Shrewsbury. The League One side were excellent and looked the more likely winners on the day. It will be tough for them to go to the London Stadium and get through to the next round, but it will be a great spectacle and a good money earner for the club. Here are three talking points from Montgomery Waters Meadow:
Javier Hernandez at West Ham hasn’t worked
It has been a difficult season for Javier Hernandez after returning to the Premier League and he didn’t take his opportunity in the FA Cup. The Mexican international has not featured as much as he would have liked for the Hammers and it has completely destroyed his confidence. He didn’t look like he wanted to have the ball on Sunday and when he did, his decision making wasn’t great.
For a player that is renowned for his intelligent movement and predatory instincts, Hernandez was easily dealt with by a League One defence. He didn’t have any attempts on goal and ended the match with a pass success rate of 50%. Considering he has played for two of the biggest clubs in the world, he should have had a much bigger impact on the game.
The next month is going to be interesting to see what business West Ham will do in the transfer market, as they have yet to find a striker to rely on. It was hoped that Hernandez would be that player, but he has yet to live up to his billing. If the club do manage to sign a new striker, it could be that the Mexican pushes for a move away. It hasn’t worked for either party and a transfer away could be what is needed to reinvigorate his career.
Shrewsbury are a team full of confidence
The Shropshire team are currently in the promotion places in League One and could be set for promotion to the Championship if they continue in their current vein of form. This tie had the potential to destroy the confidence in the squad, but they approached it with no fear and they ended this match with the nation’s respect.
They can take the confidence gained from this performance and go back into the league campaign as a better team. West Ham may have been bad, but the performance of Shrewsbury had a major impact on that. Their midfielders dominated the central areas and their defence coped with two international forwards with relative comfort.
The player to catch the eye for the home side was Ben Godfrey. The midfielder is currently on loan from Norwich City and he got the better of Pedro Obiang and Cheikhou Kouyate in the middle of the park. Shrewsbury have been willing to give chances to young players and it would be a great story if they were to make one more step up the ladder to reach the Championship. Based on this performance, it would take a brave man to bet against them.
Declan Rice impressed again
There were few positives for West Ham as they escaped Shropshire still in the FA Cup, but the performance of Declan Rice was one of them. The teenager has had a surprising rise over the course of this season and he is now performing like an established Premier League player. He was the team’s best player against Tottenham during the week and he backed that up with another good display against lower league opposition.
It would have been easy for a young player to buy into his own hype and fallen short on Sunday, but he approached the game in the same manner. His attitude is to be commended and he is establishing himself as an important first team player for the Hammers.
During the match, he showed a willingness to battle with the Shrewsbury players and dug in deep. Rice won five aerial duels, completed two tackles and made a further six interceptions. It was an excellent performance from a teenager and it was needed as the home side were putting West Ham’s defence under pressure.