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Gay Meadow

4 July 2012

Gay Meadow was Shrewsbury Town's home from 1910 until 2007

Rewind to the 1910/11 season. A different era and a different way of life - but it was the same old problems facing Shrewsbury Town then as today.

It was Town's first season at Gay Meadow and things had been going well. But on January 14 1911, as they entertained Birmingham City Reserves, they suffered their first encounter with a problem that has dogged them ever since - flooding.

The match was almost 70 minutes old when the Severn burst its banks and began to flow onto the field of play. The referee had no choice but to abandon the game.

It was a setback, but not a fatal one.

And at least they had a home - just a year earlier the club had been desperately casting their eyes around the town for a new site. The landlords of their previous Copthorne home were evicting them and time was running out to secure a replacement.

1909/10 had been a hard season for Town. February of that year had seen the roof blow off their ramshackle stand. The offending covering crashed into the telephone wires above, cutting off communications between the town and the north of England.

Against such a backdrop, they were not unhappy to be moving, with most at the club believing then - as today - that change was needed if the club was to move forward.

The Gay Meadow site was always a favoured option, officials believing the more central location would help them to attract a better fanbase.

The deal was done and Town moved in for the start of the next season. Ninety-seven years of history had begun.

The origins of the name of Gay Meadow are not clear, though it may be related to previous uses of the land as a site for various entertainments.

As early as February 1740, a young man by the name of Robert Cadman had attempted to cross over the River Severn on a rope tied to St Mary's Church on one side, and tree at Gay Meadow on the other.

It was a brave undertaking but, ultimately, a foolish one. The rope broke and Cadman fell to his horrifying death.

Around 150 years later, Sangers Circus became regular visitors, pitching up in Shrewsbury on an annual basis and using Gay Meadow as their base.

Long after Town had taken occupation, the site was still used for purposes other than football.

Intriguing pictures exist of soldiers trooping onto the pitch during the First World War, while baseball matches were staged during that and the second global conflict some three decades later.

A team of Canadian officers was beaten by a side representing the American Aero Squadron on September 21 1918 in a match staged to raise funds for the British YMCA Hut Fund.

And, 24 years later on October 101942, a large crowd was on hand to watch a match between two sides thought to have been from the nearby American Army Air Base at Atcham, playing under the names of the Yankee All Stars and the Flying Eagles.

Town's tenure of the site was initially on a one-year trial basis, and club officials were reluctant to throw too much money at the project until anything more permanent had been agreed and set in stone.

The pitch was rolled, but simple changing rooms were the only buildings on the Meadow at first as the club prepared for their first game.

That historic first match on August 20 1910 was not a grand affair, but rather a practise match between the 'Reds' and the 'Whites', with what newspaper reports of the time refereed to as "1,000 enthusiasts" watching on.

The Whites won the game 1-0, with Billy Scarratt - one of Shrewsbury's early stars - turning into his own net off a Frank Jones shot.

The first competitive match at the new ground came the following month on September 10, though it was not the happiest of beginnings as Wolverhampton Wanderers Reserves went home with a 2-1 victory.

At least Scarratt had something to celebrate - he netted at the right end this time to become the first Town player to score at Gay Meadow.

Scarratt, a former Wellington Town man, played in every position for Shrewsbury - including goalkeeper - over an eight-season spell.

He went on to serve in the King's Shropshire Light Infantry during the Great War before emigrating to New York to work as a builder. He returned in 1930, and returned to Wellington before dying in 1958, aged 80.

Having secured long-term possession of Gay Meadow, Town slowly made additions to improve it as a football ground, though the first major work did not get under way until 1922 - with the erection of a new stand.

By modern standards it was a simple affair, but it did signal the growing ambitions of a club who felt they had a prosperous future in front of them.

The work certainly drew praise from supporters and media, the Shrewsbury Chronicle declaring: "The club are to be congratulated on their enterprise, for the stand is a handsome structure and would do credit to almost any of the leading clubs in the country.

"The accommodation for the spectators and players is excellent, while the facilities granted to the Press representatives are all that can be desired.

"Journalists have so often to be content with any old seat in any odd corner that the local pressmen appreciate very highly the arrangements made for their comfort."

With their improving stadium and championship winning team, Town started to look towards the Football League.

The issue split club officials and the media, with some arguing that the loss of the Wellington Town fixture from the fixture list would be a huge blow to both clubs.

After a first failed application in 1935 it was decided not to apply the following year - though the stadium was improved further with the building of a covered terrace at the Station End. The fans, though, were incensed and were determined to have their voice heard.

A card vote was taken of spectators during a match and the overwhelming majority voted in favour of applying.

The club committee was incensed and resigned en masse, with club chairman A H Jones insisting it was "too big a gamble".

As war loomed though, Town's performances on the pitch continued to improve, and fans flocked to the cause.

The Midland League was won at the first attempt in 1938, and the Welsh Senior Cup final with second division side Swansea attracted a new record crowd of 14,500.

Shrewsbury came from two down to draw that game, but the replay was not played until the start of the following season - Town going on to complete a much-delayed double.

The war years put a stop to the plans, but the ambition never went away.

At the end of hostilities, Town looked to pick up where they left off and, in June 1950, they finally got the news they had been waiting for.

The Football League had decided to expand, adding four clubs to its number. Shrewsbury ran a vigorous campaign, even sending a brochure outlining their case to every member club of the League,

They got in - winning a place, with fellow new-boys Scunthorpe, in the Third Division (North).

Gay Meadow is seen as a tired old girl now, one that has seen her better days.

But she was at her prime in the 1950s and '60s as Town sort to establish themselves in the Football League and then looked to push on.

The early '50s were tough, and a League ruling that clubs would have to install floodlights gave Town another headache.

The bill for lighting up the Meadow was an intimidating £8,000. The Supporters' Club had already donated £14,200 for ground improvements, but now found another £3,000 interest-free loan for this project.

The rest the club had to raise itself. One initiative saw the cost of the match programme raised by 3d, with the increase earmarked for the lights.

A real big break came in April 1957 though, when entertainment tax was abolished. The tax had cost Town 18 per cent of their home gates and in the previous three years they had £12,994 - enough to provide the floodlights.

They were finally installed in late 1959, the first complete game to be played beneath them coming on November 25 against Stoke City.

Shrewsbury's performance shone every bit as brightly as their new lights, the hosts romping to a 5-0 victory.

A crowd of 5,448 were there to witness a little bit of history, though the lights had actually been switched on for the first time towards the end of the game the previous Saturday against QPR, the 3.15pm kick-off finishing under artificial light.

By this time, Arthur Rowley had taken the reins at the Meadow and the club was charging forwards on and off the pitch.

Rowley's team attracted much interest thanks to the goalscoring prowess of the likes of Colin Whitaker, Alf Wood and Rowley himself.

Plenty of people wanted to watch this team, and Gay Meadow was now big enough to house them with ease.

In May 1959, Exeter City were beaten 3-0, Rowley netting a hat-trick in a season's best attendance of 15,318 as Town won their last five games (scoring 17 goals in the process) to finish fourth in division four and win promotion.

The following season they exceeded 10,000 four times - the best being the 14,614 that saw the 2-0 defeat at home to Bury on Boxing Day.

The following year, 1960/61, they did it six times - including four in cup games.

The real drama was in the League Cup, where Town's run to the semi-finals included a 2-1 quarter-final victory over Everton in front of 15,399.

In the semi with Rotherham, they lost the first leg 3-2 and a new record of 16,722 turned out for the second leg to see if they could turn it around. They couldn't - Mal Starkey gave Town a half-time lead, but Rotherham levelled after the break to go through 4-3 on aggregate.

The crowd record stood for a little over a month, the visit of Walsall on April 26 (a game Town lost 2-1) attracting 18,917. It is a record that stands to this day and will never be beaten unless the New Meadow swells in size in the distant future.

Safety guidelines have seen the capacity of Gay Meadow reduced over the years, and the escalating costs of running a Football League team has led to the idea of a move being mooted several times over the last two decades or so.

But the grand old lady successfully hosted football at old second division (now Championship) level for 10 years through the 1980s and continues to be a favourite for visiting supporters because of its charm and character.

Its days always looked numbered though, from the moment Scunthorpe (them again) moved to Glanford Park in 1989.

They were the first League club to relocate in the 20th century, but the success of the move led to a wave of clubs following in their footsteps.

Town found difficulties identifying a new sight and negotiating the minefield of local council objections.

But the arrival of Roland Wycherley as chairman in 1996 saw a new determination to take the club forward into a bright new era.

Wycherley's dream has taken years longer than he ever envisaged to be turned into a reality.

But, today, a chapter comes to an end as Shrewsbury play their last ever League game at the Meadow.

Their new home has all the style and luxury necessary of a modern stadium. Now it is down to Gary Peters and the men that follow him to provide the memories…

Chris Hudson

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