Following England’s worst club to new pastures

When the Football League announced a ridiculous 30 point penalty for Luton Town at the start of the season 99.9% of football fans wrote them off as relegated out of the league before a ball had been kicked.  A glimmer of hope appeared a few weeks later when the League also announced stiff penalties for Rotherham United and AFC Bournemouth, essentially reducing the relegation places to the Blue Square Premier to a three horse race.

Manager Mick Harford was very optimistic about the challenge and spent the first few weeks of the season trimming the squad of the likes of Don Hutchinson, who was on an unbelievable weekly wage and bringing in a number of loanees and youth team players.  Events in the first few weeks didn’t go exactly to plan as the team dropped points on the road, and Rotherham hit the ground running to soon return to the positive in terms of points.  After a quarter of a season the club had amassed sixteen points which would have normally seen them in mid table safety. 

The biggest game of the season for them came in the last week of October when they were due to play fellow point deductees Bournemouth.  A win was a must for the Hatters as it would have taken them within seven points of their visitors, and less than the physological 20 point barrier to Grimsby Town in third from bottom, and of course safety. 

In one of those freak weather events that we are coming more and more frequent in this country, snow descended on the home counties and the game was only 8 minutes old when the referee deemed the pitch unplayable and the game became the first abandonment of the season. 

Whilst manager Harford may have breathed a sigh of relief that he could use the recovery time for his team, next up was Shrewsbury Town, who boasted the best home record in the division and sat comfortably in the play off places.  The game was to be Luton’s first visit to the Prostar Stadium, or the New Meadow as the fans like to call it.

Shrewsbury moved to the new stadium in July 207 after their old ground Gay Meadow finally gave up the ghost and was deemed unsuitable.  Whilst it was one of the most picturesque venues in Britain, located next to the River Severn and surrounded by trees, it had a number of problems, including a number of floods which saw the pitch under a few feet of water.  However, given the choice of building something with character and good transport links, or going with the IKEA style stadium in the middle of nowhere.  Guess which one they chose?

The stadium is located on the outskirts of the historic town, and really is in the middle of nowhere.  Parking is forbidden anywhere near the stadium, because who really needs fans.  And there are no real options to walk to the stadium.  But hey, if you want to cycle that is fine as there are space for two hundred bicycles!  Fortunately, through the connections of Football Jo she had managed to secure us not only Directors Box seats, but also the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket – a parking space at the stadium. 

Shrewsbury is one of those places where most people cannot locate on a map.  Is it in Wales?  England?  Most people don’t know.  It is due west of Birmingham close to the Welsh border, so it involved a three hour drive from Football Jo’s.  And what sparkling conversation did we have planned?  Why Kerry Katona was misunderstood perhaps, What a wonderful vows ceremony Katie Price organised?  Or something more topical such as why did John McCain stop making oven chips anyway?

The journey was alot better than I imagined and just over three hours after leaving SE9 we parked up in the quaint town centre in Shrewsbury.  We had arranged to meet Publisher Peter for lunch.  He had been asking me for over a year when I was coming up to a game at the new ground, and as luck would have it this was the first game of the season that he was having to miss due to family commitments.  Publisher Peter is the man who gave me my break as a real author, and has for many years edited the annual Aerofilms guide to Football Grounds.  He is also one of these unusual football fans who has a true split allegence.  Manchester United and Liverpool maybe?  Chelsea or Arsenal?  Nope – Shrewsbury Town and Bradford City!  He is the only Shrewsbury or Bradford fan I have ever met so combining the two is an interesting mix.

Lunch was very pleasant in an old pub in the town centre, complete with some excellent local ales, and a roaring open fire.  However, we were getting close to the snooze zone with the heat and the beer so we took our leave and headed for the stadium on the outskirts of the town.

Shrewsbury Town 3 Luton Town 0 – The Prostar Stadium – Saturday 1st November 2008

Looks familiar anyone?

Looks familiar anyone?

Football Jo had sorted out a car parking space and tickets for the Directors Box through her “contact” at Luton.  Unlike Colchester’s new stadium, signposts were at every main junction for the new stadium here and it only took us ten minutes to reach the ground.  Good old Jo never lets me down, and sure enough the staff on the car park gate had absolutely no record of our parking permit.  “No problems sire, park in Nick Owen’s space as he isn’t coming”.  By this time Jo was getting a bit worried that the tickets wouldn’t be there either, and sure enough after being sent from main entrance, to away entrance back to players entrance there was no sign of the tickets.  However, the club officials obviously realising we would never be trying to pull a fast one could not be more helpful and took us up to the main lounge and gave us directions to our seats.  If it was only this easy!

The stadium look very smart, if too similar to the majority of new stadiums built in this country.  They had sorted out the access problems that blighted it when it first open – such as actually building pavements for pedestrians, and putting in street lights, but they surely missed a massive trick with the train line running behind the stadium to put a small stop there and thus alleviate most of the traffic congestion as people searched vainly for somewhere to park.

Luton had brought a good 700 or so, located in the North Stand.  Earlier in the week Barnet had brought just 68 fans here so the locals were pleased that the Luton fans were generating some noise from the first whistle.  Luton were fielding a number of loanees and trainees including their centre back Roper who could not have looked more like a Sunday League player (in terms of appearance and not play I hasten to add) if he tried.  Unfortunately, their plan of trying to keep it tight at the back and breaking in numbers came undone in the 3rd minute when Paul Murray’s shot found the corner of the net from fifteen yards to give Shrewsbury the lead.

Luton’s keeper, Conrad Logan was certainly the busier of the two in the first half, although Luton’s undoing time and time again was the huge gap between the front two and the midfield.  However, they did create some of their own chances, and only some smart handling by the Shrew’s keeper Glyn Garner stopped Luton’s Claude Gnakpa and equaliser.

The second half was much of the same until the 76th minute when Shresbury’s captain Ben Davies fired home from the edge of the penalty.  At lunch with Publisher Pete he mentioned how good Davies was from the left hand edge of the area, and this was exactly what happened.  One bounce from a headed ball and Davies hit it on the half volley into the top corner.

From the resulting kick off all hell broke loose as a very rash tackle from Marc Tierney on a Luton Town player caused a few handbags on the pitch, and the offer to “take it outside” to Shrewsbury Manager Paul Simpson from Mick Harford who was incensed that the tackle only resulted in a yellow for the defender.  It was all in vein.  With three minutes left a smart cross from the left was neatly flicked in by Shresbury’s record signing Grant Holt to make it three.

So Luton departed with no points from a very tricky game.  As other results filtered through it was obvious it was a bad day as all of their rivals had picked up points.  We were out of the car park and on the main road within five minutes, and back in Luton within two hours.  The only sour point of the day really was Tottenham’s last minute winner versus Liverpool!

About the Prostar Stadium
Whilst the old Gay Meadow ground was homely with a good atmosphere, access to the ground was very poor, via a small back-street known as ‘The Narrows’. This poor access meant that the capacity at Gay Meadow was slashed from 14,500 to 8,000 following the Taylor Report. Redevelopment of the old ground was cited as a possibility, however it had been stated that if the ground was accessible on all sides of the stadium with exit through the neighbouring Abbey Gardens, the stadium capacity could still only rise to no more than 10,000, the current capacity for the New Meadow.

In addition, the Gay Meadow’s location on the banks of the River Severn, whilst picturesque, meant the club suffered with flooding. Severe floods in 1998, 2000 and frequently since have affected the club badly, with several matches postponed, a flooded pitch and flooded offices and changing rooms.

The first match at the new ground was an ‘All-Stars’ friendly game as part of Shrewsbury Town’s new sponsorship deal with Italian sportswear manufacturer A-Line, who made Shrewsbury’s kit for the 2007-08 season. Heading the list of All-Stars players was Gianfranco Zola, with the team being managed by Ron Atkinson. The match took place on Saturday 14 July 2007, and Shrewsbury Town ran out 4-0 winners, Shrewsbury striker Dave Hibbert taking the honour of being the first ever goalscorer at the new ground. The first competitive match at what was then called ‘The New Meadow’ was a League Cup match against Colchester United, of The Championship, two divisions above Shrewsbury. It took place on Tuesday 14 August 2007, Shrewsbury winning 1-0 thanks to a header from Darran Kempson in extra time.  The record crowd for a match at the stadium is 8,753 for England vs Spain, a Women’s Euro 2009 Qualifier, played on 25 November 2007.

The stadium is made up of four seperate stands, each single tier and covered with gaps at each corner for expansion. The view is excellent from all seats and the lowish roof enables quite an atmosphere to be built up despite the small capacity.

How to get to the Prostar Stadium
The stadium is located along side of the A5 which essentially acts as the Shrewsbury ring road.  It is well signposted from the A49 and the end of the M54.  Parking is not permitted at the stadium on a matchday, nor in any of the surrounding retail parks (although how they can stop you if you pop into Sainsbury’s afterwards!) and residential streets.  There are a number of park and ride schemes from the town centre that are well signposted.  Alternatively there is a shuttle bus that runs from the railway station.

How to get a ticket for the Prostar Stadium
There still hasn’t been a sell out at the stadium yet so for nearly every game tickets are available on the day.  However, they are cheaper to buy in advance either from the club shop at the stadium, by phone on 0871 811 8800 or online at http://www.shrewsburytown.com.  For most matches tickets range in price from £16 in the south and west stands and £19 in the East stand.  They also offer some good value family tickets at £17 for an Adult and one child.  Additional childrens tickets are £3.  Prices drop significantly for games such as the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy (£10).

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