Simon Hart: Mickey Mellon's community efforts are bearing fruit as Shrewsbury Town go through purple patch

Life Beyond the Premier League

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The Independent Football

“There were five players, no chief executive, no scouting system, no youth-team manager, no community set-up – it was a real lonely place.” Micky Mellon is recalling the state of Shrewsbury Town when he arrived at the newly relegated club last May. The fact that today Shrewsbury sit top of League Two ahead of Saturday's meeting with fifth-placed Southend United is testament to Mellon’s impressive rebuilding work since – and tells you the Glaswegian was on to a good thing when he decided there was only one way to unite a brand new squad of players.

This solution was something Mellon, after leaving his previous role as Barnsley assistant manager, “had put together in my head” and now had the chance to put into practice. He explains to The Independent: “I sat them down and said, ‘This club has been relegated and there are a lot of sad faces around.’ I said that the challenge was to try and fill this stadium, win games of football and connect the football club back with the community.”

For Mellon this final point – reconnecting with the public – was the key, and the 42-year-old duly sent his players “out into the community to the very people they represent”. This has led to their weekly involvement in community activities – from visits to Hope House Children’s Hospice to full-back Mickey Demetriou helping with Down’s Syndrome football sessions and forward Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro giving French lessons at a local school.

Mellon, an infectious character, adds: “It wasn’t until I became a manager that I thought, ‘I never knew the fans’. If I’d known what it meant to them, would that have inspired me a wee bit more? Everybody’s more or less training the same way now, so I thought that for me would be a way forward and it has helped.

“We have a real connection between the community and the club. People just come in for a chat. Two World War Two veterans, who were on the beach at Normandy and were big Shrewsbury fans, had lunch with us. The players were saying, ‘Tell us about the war’, but they were more interested in Shrewsbury and what it meant to them. When they went, I said, ‘They love their football club, don’t forget it’.”

He adds: “I have had situations in my career where if you asked the players what the badge was they wouldn’t even be able to tell you. They wouldn’t be able to tell you any of the history of the club. I think it is important for the group to know actually what they are representing.”

His players have responded by turning the Greenhous Meadow into a fortress with 15 wins from 18 games in all competitions. Indeed, their only home loss was a 2-1 defeat by Chelsea in the Capital One Cup in front of a sell-out crowd.

Mellon’s choice of a 3-5-2 formation has paid off with Shrewsbury keeping more clean sheets (15 from 28 league games) than any other English side.

It has not been his only shrewd move. The decision to retain the club’s previous manager, his former Tranmere Rovers team-mate Michael Jackson, as his assistant was another; so too the signing of Liam Lawrence, once a Premier League player with Sunderland and Stoke City, and now Mellon’s captain.

“The younger players look at him and see what it takes,” explains Mellon, whose young crop includes the home-grown 21-year-old Ryan Woods, a player who was switched from right-back to central midfield by Mellon and who embodies the Scot’s wish for players to “be brave and get on the ball and play”.

West Ham were interested in Woods last month and the fact he stayed augurs well for the prospects of a team level on points with Burton Albion at the top. “It will be tight,” adds Mellon, who won promotions as a player at West Bromwich Albion and Burnley before guiding Fleetwood Town into the Football League as manager.

Whatever happens next, Mellon’s efforts at Shrewsbury have already been appreciated – not least by the pub which named a real ale after him. “It is called Micky Mellon’s Barmy Army,” he explains. “I am led to believe people ask for a pint of Micky.” It’s not the only good thing brewing in Shropshire.