Conversations with Andrew Harding (Shrewsbury Town)
In our first Conversations post of 2012, I speak with Salop fan Andrew Harding about the quality of this year’s crop and whether the club’s move out of town to the New Meadow has been a success, amongst other things.
LL: Shrewsbury were acknowledged in various season previews as likely ‘there or thereabouts’ candidates and, currently standing in 4th place, have duly delivered thus far. What is it about Graham Turner’s side that has made them such consistently strong performers this term?
AH: The continuation of last season’s approach has been key to maintaining the consistency you mention. Since arriving, Turner has looked towards younger players with the desire to improve and aspire to a higher level.
So far, it is an approach that has certainly worked. Prior to Turner’s employment, Shrewsbury would try and play quick football on the ground but it often seemed too fast for some individuals. Turner has moved them on and the team now has a great blend of experience and youth.
The group is smaller than last season but the quality of player is higher and it has meant that despite accumulating a few injuries in defence, the replacements haven’t been much of a drop, if at all, in standard.
LL: You mention a core of players that remain from last term; who are they and who are the key individuals who have come in more recently?
AH: I would say that the mainstays are club captain Ian Sharps, Shane Cansdell-Sherriff, Nicky Wroe and Mark Wright. They’ve been practically ever-present except for injury and in the case of Sharps and Cansdell-Sheriff, their understanding appears to give confidence to the whole team. They’ve been pretty consistent despite some levelling criticism at the latter two of that quartet.
There are players from last season like Jermaine Grandison and Lionel Ainsworth who’ve been impressive but I wouldn’t refer to them as part of the core. Grandison would be were it not for his injury and the fact that his replacements have been very good, particularly James Hurst. As for Ainsworth, he has the ability to be a good player at a higher level but his decision-making lets him down and he just isn’t consistent enough.
The players who’ve come in have been marked improvements on the players they’ve replaced. Joe Jacobson has continued where Mat Sadler left off last season and Marvin Morgan is a much better footballer than the man who he replaced (Matt Harrold). While it would be good if he could improve his goal scoring rate, his work for his teammates and his willingness to press defenders when in possession has made him invaluable to the team.
Of late, the individual who has earned much praise has been Matt Richards. While Sean McAllister is a decent central midfielder with an eye for a pass, Richards ventures forward more and his left foot is a real threat. Nicky Wroe is reasonable at set-pieces but Richards appears to be far superior with a dead ball as well so it’s good that we now have that option and better technical quality in the centre of the pitch. There were many times last season when the midfield two struggled to understand what was expected of them in a given moment in terms of shape. Richards has more positional awareness and will often stay a little further back when Wroe is forward. McAllister and the now-departed Kevin McIntyre would do that but weren’t convincing in their positioning. Richards has really taken the position on and it’s been noted by the supporters. He was player of the month last November.
LL: Sharps certainly stood out when we played you on the opening day. I thought that he was a real calming presence in the centre of defence and I can see why he’s highly rated. Similarly, I liked Ainsworth, who perhaps had one of his better days as he made hay against us on the wing.
I just wonder what most Shrews supporters expect from the season; is there a consensus that this is a stronger team than last year’s amongst the fan base and are you now looking to the top 3 as opposed to the play-offs?
AH: The consensus seems to be that the squad is stronger in quality but possesses less depth. However, Turner has been more active in the loan market than last season, largely due to the accumulation of injuries I admit, but I think he feels it’s the right path to go down.
After being so close to automatic promotion last time around and given the whole ‘goal that shouldn’t have been’ business against Wycombe, the fans would as a whole be disappointed if automatic promotion to League 1 wasn’t achieved.
There are some who think we simply have to finish in the top 3, which I don’t feel is particularly arrogant; I just think it comes from the perceived improvement on last season in terms of quality. You have to bear in mind our woeful play-off track record as well. Automatic promotion is desired and there are some fans who think it’s deserved. Such an opinion is a little too strong but, unlike before, the consensus is that the Shrews are good enough to be in the top 3 rather than settling for the play-offs like in yesteryears.
LL: What are your thoughts on League 2 more generally this season? Do you think it’s a strong league this time round?
AH: That’s a good question. League 2 football has been steadily improving in terms of technical ability and it’s certainly good to see teams that are confident enough to be more patient in possession.
I don’t think the division has changed a great deal from last year although having said that, I do believe that in particular the middle of the table is more competitive. Last season there seemed to be some evident divides in perceived ability. This term it seems more a case of other factors than specific technical quality that defines just how well a team does. For me, I think the ability of coaching staff is having more and more impact on the lower divisions than before, for instance.
LL: That’s an interesting point, Andrew. I’ve always viewed League 2 as a division that, given a half-decent manager and a not completely miserly spending budget, any team can potentially do well in. Perhaps worth considering in a dedicated post at some point down the line, that.
Moving on, has the hop to the New Meadow been a successful one? I must admit that, while Shrewsbury remains an absolutely cracking trip due to the number of good pubs and the town’s beauty, I found the schlep out of town to the new stadium pretty tiresome earlier this season. I also wasn’t much impressed by the ground itself, it being almost identical to some of the other new ones, such as Colchester’s.
AH: For Shrewsbury Town, it would appear to have been a great success and one that will help the club grow. I do think, however, that it has hit the town itself a bit but I encourage all away fans to spend time in the centre as we have some thoroughly excellent pubs which deserve your time.
As for the stadium, I completely understand you in that it goes along with the identikit style that so many clubs have turned to, and while every attempt is being made to give it a personality it still seems a little too removed from the rest of the town. I’m hopeful in the years to come that, with some on-the-pitch success, more will be made of the exact area in terms of other entities in and around the ground and making it at least seem more in touch with the town centre, but I’m sure local residents wouldn’t be too fond of such an idea.
LL: Tell us about your website, Andrew. What was behind its origination? And where’s the best place to find your musings on Salop?
AH: My site is basically my home on the internet. I regularly contribute to other sites across a range of topics that interest me but I wanted a specific go-to place where I could also publish pieces that might not be particularly in-keeping with the requirements of other sites or quite frankly pieces that I’m not sure anyone would want.
I’ve always had an interest in writing but was unaware of the blogging community until the tail end of 2010. Last year was one of discovery and finding what works and what doesn’t and I’m hopeful that 2012 will see me being more consistent in terms of regularity. As for my Salopian musings, I would say my own site will see more in the new year and also The 72 where I’ve posted a few of my thoughts over the past 12 months. The “Elsewhere” section on my blog will point anyone in those directions.