SHREWSBURY, England — The world’s best soccer team is coming to Shrewsbury, a quaint market town near the border of England and Wales, and the local mayor has mixed emotions.
“Being something of an armchair Liverpool supporter, I’m going to be a little conflicted,” Phil Gillam says ahead of Sunday’s fourth-round match in the FA Cup. “I just hope it’s a good game. It’s not just brilliant for Shrewsbury Town Football Club, but also wonderful for the town as a whole.”
Indeed, a couple of generations after The Beatles played in Shrewsbury – the band is believed to have written the No. 1 hit “From Me To You” while travelling there in 1963 – another famous lineup from Liverpool is making the 80-kilometer (50-mile) trip to the birthplace of Charles Darwin for a match that might not be as lopsided as first imagined.
Liverpool is the European and recently crowned world club champion, and – holding a 16-point lead – is on the brink of winning the English league for the first time in 30 years. Shrewsbury is in 16th place in the third tier.
Liverpool has won the FA Cup seven times. Shrewsbury has never made the final.
The only competitive game between the two teams was also in the fourth round of the FA Cup, in 1996. Liverpool won that game 4-0 at Shrewsbury’s old Gay Meadow ground, where a coracle – a traditional boat small enough to be carried on your back – would be used to retrieve stray soccer balls from the adjacent River Severn.
Fred Davies, who was dubbed “Coracle Man,” did his duty for years in the small boat, which is now on display at Shrewsbury’s current ground. According to the BBC, “it was not uncommon for Fred to have to return the ball to the ground five or six times during a game.”
It was at Gay Meadow where Shrewsbury dealt another Merseyside team, Everton, a shock with a 2-1 win in 2003. It’s still regarded as one of the famous old tournament’s biggest upsets, with a 17-year-old Wayne Rooney in the visiting team and Shrewsbury 80 places lower in the English soccer pyramid at the time.
Seventeen years on and Shrewsbury isn’t without hope of another so-called “giant-killing.” Liverpool is set to field a heavily weakened team for the match, which comes right in the middle of two important Premier League fixtures for Juergen Klopp’s side as it closes in on the title.
The Reds remain the favorites, sure, but this won’t be the usual Liverpool team.
Not that Shrewsbury’s manager is expecting any favors.
“Top players produce it game after game,” said Shrewsbury manager Sam Ricketts, a former Premier League player with Hull and Bolton. “The very, very top like Liverpool, they produce it Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday-Wednesday and they do it every three or four days. And they’re getting chopped down every week.
“At our level, every player has a Championship (second tier) game in them. Every player has the odd Premier League-standard game in them. It’s the consistency level (that counts).”
Under Klopp, Liverpool has never reached the fifth round. and the Reds last won the competition in 2006. That might mean it’s a trophy on Klopp’s radar this season, though he has shown in his team selections that he has his sights set very much elsewhere, primarily the league and the Champions League.
“Is it a test (on Sunday)? Yes, maybe, but it is not like I test the players, it is a test in general as you play against a team who fights the fight of their life and we have to show how important the next round is to us,” Klopp said.
Klopp played a virtual youth side against Everton in the third round, and Liverpool still came away with a 1-0 win at Anfield.
Shrewsbury earned a shot at Liverpool by beating second-tier Bristol City 1-0 at home in a replay, the 89th-minute winner coming from Aaron Pierre.
Shrewsbury also drew 2-2 with Premier League team Wolverhampton at the near 10,000-capacity Montgomery Waters Meadow in the fourth round of the tournament last year – having gone 2-0 up at one stage – before losing the replay 3-2 at Molineux.
Shrewsbury’s most famous resident is Darwin, the English naturalist famed for his theories of evolution and natural selection. He was born in 1812 – the same day as Abraham Lincoln – at a surviving Georgian house.
Sunday’s match will be televised live by the BBC and some viewers might recognize Shrewsbury’s blue-and-amber jerseys. A Shrewsbury replica kit is worn by bass guitarist character Derek Smalls in the rock mock-documentary “This Is Spinal Tap”.
The FA Cup is full of tales of top teams heading to cramped lower-league grounds, and struggling with a setting they rarely experience. This won’t be the case at modern-day Shrewsbury.
The club moved a mile out of town in 2007 into a new stadium with a large car park whose entrance has multiple signs warning learner drivers not to use the space for practice.
Shrewsbury’s fans will be hoping Liverpool’s strike force heeds the warning.
TENANT VS. LANDLORD
It’s a case of tenant vs. the landlord when Coventry meets Birmingham in the fourth round on Saturday.
The teams are groundsharing this season after third-tier Coventry’s ownership, London-based hedge fund Sisu, failed to conclude a deal to stay at the club’s recent home, Ricoh Arena, with the stadium’s operators.
Coventry’s long-suffering fans, who six seasons ago saw its team forced to play at the home of Northampton amid an ownership dispute, have to travel 22 miles (35 kilometers) to watch their side play in Birmingham and the team’s average attendance has almost halved.
With Coventry drawn as the “home” team, it will be in the strange position of hosting a club that is letting it play at St. Andrew’s.
Coventry will always be synonymous with the FA Cup after being a surprise winner of the competition in 1987, beating Tottenham after extra time in a memorable final. Its manager, Mark Robins, also made his name in the FA Cup after scoring crucial goals for Manchester United in its run to the trophy in 1990. His winner in the third round against Nottingham Forest that season is widely thought to have kept Alex Ferguson in a job at United before Ferguson went on to achieve unprecedented success at Old Trafford.