A funny thing happened when Shrewsbury Town played at Wigan on St Stephen's Day. The visitors earned a goalless draw to end a run of five straight wins by the League One leaders, though that was not entirely unexpected. What was odd was that when the home crowd chanted: "We are top of the league," the away fans responded with: "We are staying up."
At that precise point Shrewsbury were second in the table, as they are still, about to reach the same points total by new year as they managed in the whole of last season. There was a time when Shrewsbury were worried about relegation; when Paul Hurst took over in October 2016 they were bottom of the division, though since then the climb has been steady and impressive.
Everyone believes Wigan are nailed-on champions this season: they are on an eight-match unbeaten league run in which they have an aggregate score of 20-1, winning six games. Yet somehow - and some way under the radar - Town remain just two points behind them and five ahead of Blackburn Rovers, another former Premier League side trying to get back into the Championship. Shrewsbury took 10 points from a possible 12 over the festive period, with the only draw coming at Wigan's DW Stadium.
All of which ought to make Shrewsbury's FA Cup tie against West Ham tomorrow afternoon quite intriguing, since David Moyes's side have been struggling at the wrong end of the Premier League and may not be ideally placed to take on high-pressing physical opponents who have been playing with confidence all season.
Moyes knows all about Shrewsbury's potential for Cup upsets. Not only did he spend three years of his playing career at Gay Meadow, he took his Everton side there in January 2003, only to be upstaged by a Town team managed by Kevin Ratcliffe.
Joe Hart, meanwhile, will be making a return to his boyhood club, though this is where the story begins to depart from tradition. Hart has lost his place as regular West Ham goalkeeper and if he plays in the Cup tie it will only be through Moyes making changes with an eye on the league challenges still ahead.
Never one of the game's romantics, Moyes is quite likely to do exactly that. Indeed, he has already pointed out that West Ham might find themselves compromised should they reach the fourth round. "We can't afford to damage our league season," the West Ham manager said in midweek. "If I thought I could win the FA Cup I would definitely try, but I would have to think twice if I thought it was going to affect our results in the Premier League. We have two games in a week following the fourth-round date, one against Crystal Palace and one against Brighton, and we are going to have to do everything we can to take points from those games."
Given West Ham's position, no one would expect Moyes to think differently. As a matter of fact Hurst, too, might regard league results as his absolute priority. "The season doesn't depend on this game, we can just look forward to it as a bit of a break," the Shrewsbury manager says - though it is probably easier to take a relaxed view when you are at the top end of the table rather than the bottom.
This is very often the story of the FA Cup nowadays. Whereas in the past such a tie would have been regarded as ripe for an upset, increasingly in the Premier League era the question to be asked is whether altered priorities and changed teams really amount to an upset. The headlines will still allude to a Cup shock should West Ham go out, though once a club admits a Cup run might not be in its best interests the reality should be more along the lines of mild surprise.
"In some respects it's a free hit for us because the league is our priority and we make no bones about that," the Shrewsbury captain, Mat Sadler, says. "Whoever plays for West Ham is in their squad for a reason. They have a vastly bigger budget than us and you would expect to be playing against a higher calibre of opposition. We'll be playing in front of a full house so it's up to us to put on a show to please our fans."
While the capacity at New Meadow (Gay Meadow was left behind in 2007) is just under 10,000, the stadium is likely to be in the news this year as the club go ahead with their policy of introducing an area of safe standing. This will still happen even if Shrewsbury reach the Championship, although without a rule change it may be for only a limited period of time.
One way or another Shrewsbury are intent on getting themselves noticed, though Hurst has warned the pitch itself will not come to the team's aid in Sunday's Cup tie. "We'll do everything we can to be the story of the weekend, but West Ham are not going to hate playing here," the Shrewsbury manager says. "In some Cup upsets the pitch acts as a leveller. Our problem is that we've got a nice stadium with a good surface." Observer
Shrewsbury Town v West Ham,
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