I’ve been living in Shrewsbury for nearly two years but over the course of a weekend, I managed to take in some new sporting experiences right on my doorstep.
The first was professional tennis at The Shrewsbury Club – a place that’s attracted the world’s best players for a number of years but one I’ve never visited despite regular interest.
In contrast, the second was at Shrewsbury Town’s Montgomery Waters Meadow – a stadium that’s become my most frequently visited ground in the Football League. But with the introduction of safe standing there in the summer, I’d gain a whole new perspective from a familiar setting.
Here’s what I learnt from both events.
The Shrewsbury Club
I awoke on Saturday morning with an anxious feeling. I planned to see the women’s $25k GB Pro-Series final in the afternoon but had no one to go with.
Normally, going alone to see a football game is not a problem for me. I do often feel nervous before a game but having been to so many matches, I’m comforted by knowing what to ask if I have any problems. But having never been to The Shrewsbury Club before, or a tennis event outside of the Birmingham Classic or Wimbledon, I didn’t know what to expect from my visit. And that put me on edge.
I contemplated not going. However, I thought about seeing the result afterwards and I knew I’d regret not being there. So I put some music on and headed to the venue – which was about a 30-minute walk away.
I didn’t feel great for much of the journey. But I soon settled down after I stopped listening to music and took in a beautiful autumn scene en route. Hearing the birds and seeing the array of colour from the leaves put me at ease and I worried less about what would happen at the tennis match.
When I arrived at The Shrewsbury Club, I was taken aback by the amount of cars parked outside. The final clearly had a lot of people attending – which was impressive but also nerve-wracking.
However, the staff inside were very welcoming and there was a positive vibe around the place. I was helped by two friendly workers who gave me a wristband and then directed me to the court where the final would take place. There was an opportunity to take in some refreshments before things got under way but I still didn’t feel great so I headed straight to courtside.
Finalist Valeria Savinykh was already practising with her coach and looked very much in the zone. On the spectator benches there were a number of free programmes laid out, as well as a trial pass to the Club’s facilities and an insert of all the matches that had taken place during the week. A really nice gesture considering the final was already free to attend.
I took up a position at the back of the benches for a better view of the court and awaited the finalists. My thoughts turned to who I’d be rooting for. I thought I’d back Maia Lumsden. The British number nine actually came through two qualifying matches and four main draw rounds to reach the final and was looking to become the first home player to win the Shrewsbury title since the late Elena Baltacha in 2009.
However, as the contest got under way, I found myself backing her Russian opponent more. Savinykh had a fierce attitude that occasionally boiled over when line calls weren’t given in her favour. I liked her aggression. Especially when she battled back from losing her first set of the tournament.
Lumsden played phenomenally well in that opening set, hitting a variety of shots that moved Savinykh all over the court before delivering big winners. But Savinykh fought hard in the second and managed to level the match. A few suspect line calls helped Lumsden take the initiative in the decider but, in truth, she played the best tennis on the day and deservedly emerged as champion with a 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 scoreline.
Following Lumsden’s winning ace on match point, the Glaswegian was serenaded (or, in my view, tortured) by The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles. The music at the event was probably the only aspect I didn’t enjoy, as the likes of Calvin Harris blared during US Open-style breaks that killed any tension.
Savinykh continued to rise in my estimations during the presentation ceremony by curtly describing her reactions and going against all the generic post-match statements. But I was also pleased for Lumsden. A group of ball-girls approached her for photos afterwards, which was nice to see. And at just 20 years of age, she has a great chance of making her mark on tennis’ world stage.
Heading back through the autumn trees following the final, I was really glad I went. The Shrewsbury Club is an exquisite facility and was a fantastic host. It’s no surprise that they’ve managed to secure an even more prestigious women’s $60k event in February. I’m already planning my next visit.
Montgomery Waters Meadow
The next day saw several games being played in the FA Cup first round. Wrexham were playing at Weston-Super-Mare, which was a £50 train ride away. So I decided to take in Shrewsbury Town’s tie with Salford City instead. It not only gave me a chance to see our National League title rivals in action (and worry about their ridiculously talented squad for weeks to come) but it also allowed me to try out safe standing for the first time.
Shrewsbury’s 555 safe standing ‘seats’ are the only ones you’ll find in England and Wales, with sides in the Championship and Premier League currently banned from having them in place. Many fans across the footballing pyramid have welcomed the Shrews’ decision to use safe standing and they see it as proof that modern-day requirements for stadia to be all-seated is not necessary. Given that many lower league grounds have old standing terraces in place, and a lot of fans actually stand up at seated sections of stadiums, the case for safe standing seems to make sense.
And now, having experienced it first hand, I’m even more inclined to that judgement. I’ve stood up in seated stadiums before and haven’t felt as safe because of the narrow walkways and the threat of falling into the next row of seats. In fact, at Aston Villa last season, my friend and I got trampled on by supporters celebrating a goal. Safe standing takes away that danger, as fans are in designated positions with protective barriers and plenty of space. Meanwhile, wristbands are issued as a control measure to prevent overcrowding in that section.
However, one problem I encountered was the steward didn’t check my wristband as I entered the safe standing section. I can only assume the lack of people in attendance meant overcrowding wasn’t an issue and things would be stricter at bigger games. I hope that’s the case anyways because standing up enabled fans to build an incredible atmosphere that helped me enjoy a poor game.
Other than the two goals scored by Shrewsbury’s Ollie Norburn and then Adam Rooney minutes later, there was no real goal threat to speak about. Particularly from the home side, who were creatively woeful. The fact that Shrews’ manager John Askey took until the 90th minute to make his second substitution left a lot of people angry and many called for his sacking at full-time.
The board was obviously listening. The game proved to be Askey’s last in charge, just over three months after his first. As much as I don’t like seeing managers losing their jobs so quickly these days, I can’t blame the fans or the board for wanting him out. Askey was very lifeless on the touchline and didn’t seem phased by the poor performances from his players. That would definitely aggravate me if he were Wrexham’s manager.
It will be interesting to see who wins the replay now. Salford did worry me somewhat. They have a great starting line-up – particularly their front three of Rooney, Rory Gaffney and Danny Lloyd. But I didn’t think their options from the bench were to the same standard as their first 11 (besides Tom Walker, who normally starts in their midfield three).
With Wrexham winning 2-0 at Weston-Super-Mare and Salford now having an extra game, we might have a very slight advantage in the title race. But there’s still two games to play against the Ammies over the festive period, while Leyton Orient also look a real threat just a point behind us. Based on the evidence of Salford holding League One opposition away from home, whoever takes the National League title will be worthy winners of a place in the Football League.