With January’s season-defining heroics a distant memory, the U’s were keen to avenge their Salop wallop in the opposite leg. Mark Bonner’s deliberately myopic short term thinking always seems to provide an outrageously high level of concentration in his players but surely even he would have spent the early hours of Saturday morning cursing the bruises from the October beating his side were handed. His side, four wins from the last four at home, would need a battering ram to find their way through the visiting miserly defense. Ironside’s full return, Hoolahan’s inclusion, and Okedina’s cool head all returning to the team seemed the necessary tonic to rediscover January’s highs. United didn’t make the best of starts, allowing space and time, Flanagan winning a free header from the early corner after just three minutes. Mitov’s early and impressive work to keep the ball out felt like a sign of things to come.
The U’s forged a quarter-chance of their own shortly after. Hoolahan found space, beating his man and finding Ironside. He served the ball to May whose shot was promising but well over the bar. The Shrews retaliated, this time Bowman firing a dangerous and close volley on goal, again Mitov was equal to it, again reminding the United fans where they might find themselves without his xG-defying work.
A quarter of the match passed before United built an extended run of possession, even that resulting in a Shrewsbury effort on goal. The Shrewsbury pressure meant United found themselves typically with their backs to the wall, but untypically unable to find an out ball to release pressure and counter-attack, often looking like the side away from home holding onto a comfortable lead, seeing out the win in ‘game management’ mode. United consistently found themselves second to the first ball and, somehow, third to the second ball. It took 40 minutes to maneuver a second chance, May finding space in the box to cutely head the ball, Jensen Weir-like, just wide of the mark. Seemingly the home side had turned a corner, forming another chance after good play down the left found George Williams with a speculative but decent effort from long range.
Half-time brought the relief of keeping a fortunate clean sheet. Long spells of Shrewsbury pressure and numerous chances without much reply from the home side highlighted by contrast how successful this season has been. Because this was dire. Despite not producing the breakthrough goal, the visitors outthought and outflanked their hosts as well as any guest at the Abbey this season. As the side in pink left the pitch it was tempting to check if any were named Roberto Carlos, who this week made his debut for a Shropshire pub side. United’s lack of bite made an already sweet Shrewsbury look as fanciful as their lovely Liquorice Allsorts kit.
Half-time delivered the reprieve the U’s needed and seemingly the invention their first half missed. Lloyd Jones’ deft through ball to James Brophy gave the Red Terror a chance to shoot from ten yards. His effort struck the arm of a defender before the visitors cleared, but the referee was unimpressed and not even Harrison Dunk’s looks could persuade a change of heart. Shortly after, Adam May’s cross found Sam Smith who headed back across goal—would Ironside have claimed the goal since he headbutted Smith in the back?—only to see the ball land on the roof of the net.
The truth of the matter was twofold; the home side’s midfield seemed largely missing (Digby and May were frequently absent or late), and each Salop chance felt more cutting than their opponents’. The wonderful Shrewsbury defense seems to only be bested by their woeful offense. That, paired with the heroics of the Bulgaria’s number one (surely), kept the visitors at bay. The visitors sportingly missed an open goal at the death leaving Lloyd jones agape, hands-on-head, embarrassed by the generosity of the Salopian gift. This was a game that any opponent with a striker who could finish would have reveled in, because United were absent, shadows of their best this season.
How wonderful it is to leave a match unharmed after exposing your soft underbelly to your opponent, only to share the spoils. United failed to record a shot on goal; Shrewsbury shot 21 times. File this one under one huge point gained.
Man of the Match: Mitov.
Song: Everyday is Like Sunday, Morrisey