Shrewsbury survival put into stark perspective

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The Independent Football

East met west at Gay Meadow yesterday, and the streaker with a blue wig and a balloon in the only possible place had it about right.

East met west at Gay Meadow yesterday, and the streaker with a blue wig and a balloon in the only possible place had it about right.

The "Great Escape" was painted large on his back and on the balloon, at least until the inevitable happened. The hysteria that greeted the abrupt deflation was not so much a comment on what was revealed as a release of the emotion that eddied around this doomed old ground beside the banks of the Severn.

Played to celebrate 50 years of League football in Shropshire, this was a game that nearly did not happen. Ten weeks ago Shrewsbury were half an hour away from the Conference.

The draining terror of that day down in Exeter is burned deep into the hearts of every Salopian. So, too, the elation after survival was achieved, courtesy of a goal and a half from Michael Brown, who induced the Exeter keeper to drop the ball into his own net.

The fans needed to see this - well, not Manchester United spending 88 minutes ripping their team to shreds - but the very presence of the superstars from Old Trafford to believe they were still, in name at least, of the same brotherhood.

"Fifty years in the Football League. Curiously, Manchester United are one of the few clubs we have never played competitively in that time," said Kevin Bright, co-editor of the fanzine A Large Scotch, with only a touch of irony.

As the fans gathered the predominant colour was, depressingly, red, among the younger element at least. It is not that far to Manchester; in fact for 18 months or so United had a branch of their Superstore in Shrewsbury. The local club shop is a portable cabin.

Marie Jones, from Shrewsbury, was wearing blue and amber. Her eight-year-old son Ricky, however, was starry-eyed in scarlet.

"We bring him here every week, but if he's asked he'll tell you he's a United supporter," Marie sighed. "What can you do?" What indeed.

The programme listed the squads; 24 for the Shrews, 68 for United. Though still out of contract Brown took his place. In the circumstances it seemed the least he deserved.

So 91st against first, and nominal equality until Nicky Butt's left-footed 25-yard screamer after three minutes.

Unlike United, Shrewsbury have made some signings in the close season, but Nigel Jemson had barely touched the ball when Ole Solskjaer's quick feet made it two.

United looked like scoring every time they came forward, but when he got the chance Brown was giving Phil Neville an amusingly hard time. It was from one of his crosses, headed clear by Henning Berg, that Jemson played the ball back in for Chris Freestone to head past a static and permanently sulky Mark Bosnich in the United goal.

Solskjaer's slow-motion overhead kick was a predictable response, and so it went on. Quinton Fortune set up the commendably hungry Teddy Sheringham, and there were further goals from Michael Clegg, two more from Fortune, and one from David Healy.

Yet Bright and his cohorts are convinced, along with every other football club supporter in the country at this time of year, that things can only get better. For United that means winning the European Cup; for Shrewsbury, survival being assured before the last game of the season. No doubt the United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, and his Shrewsbury counterpart, Kevin Ratcliffe, will compare notes. "What have you learned?" Ratcliffe was asked.

"How to count," came the rueful reply.