The summer of 1978 was an uncertain one at Gay Meadow as Shrewsbury said farewell to, Alan Durban, the manager who won them promotion out of the Fourth Division three years earlier. Ritchie Barker stepped up from assistant and instantly launched a history making campaign as the Shrews made a bid for promotion to the Second Division for the first time. The club were top of the table with just one defeat in their opening seventeen games when Barker dropped the bombshell that he was moving on to take up the assistant manager’s job at First Division Wolves. Shrewsbury turned to one of their players, Graham Turner to be entrusted with the task of building on Barker’s foundations and when he started with a defeat it must have raised concerns. The defeat was just a blip though and the Shrews remained on course for promotion as they came through the first three rounds of the cup with wins at Third Division Mansfield, Fourth Division Doncaster and, most impressively, a 3-1 minor cupset of Second Division Cambridge at Gay Meadow. That set up a fourth round clash with First Division Manchester City.
Tony Book’s City qualified for the UEFA cup the previous season and in December they pulled off an impressive 3-0 victory over Milan, having drawn 2-2 in the first leg in Italy. It was a star studded City line up with five England Internationals, Joe Corrigan, Dave Watson, Brian Kidd, Peter Barnes and Mike Channon. Corrigan was the keeper in City’s 1970 cup winner’s cup winning team and had also enjoyed League cup success in 1976 with Watson, Barnes, Gary Owen and Scottish duo, Willie Donachie and Asa Hartford. Brian Kidd had scored in Manchester United’s 1968 European cup win, Watson and Channon had both won the F A cup while with Second Division clubs Sunderland and Southampton respectively while Polish legend Kazimierz Deyna was among the first major wave of foreign stars to come to England on the back of the 1978 World cup. In addition to this was a city legend, Colin Bell, the last survivor of their 1968 League title winning side who was attempting to make a comeback after a career threatening injury. Yet incredibly this was a team who came to Shrewsbury without a victory in thirteen consecutive League games. The Manchester natives were restless.
Gay Meadow was heavily sanded before the tie while over 14,000 fans packed into a stadium that could just about hold 16,000. And what they saw was a fully deserved dismantling of a team clearly short on confidence by one that couldn’t be more so. The visiting aristocrats stroked the ball around patiently in the opening exchanges until the ninth minute when John Keay’s high through ball left Paul Futcher flat footed and unable to stop Paul Maguire. His first effort was saved by Corrigan but the Shrewsbury winger was fortunate enough to get his body against the rebound and steer it into the net before the flailing Futcher could prevent the goal. City were all over the place defensively after that and Maguire could have doubled their lead when hitting the side netting while Steve Biggins should have done better when one on one with Corrigan. Their best chance of a second goal came and went when strong appeals for a penalty were waived away after Biggins appeared to be felled by both Donachie and Deyna. City did have their moments but they were rare by comparison as Barnes and Kidd both failed to find the target from good positions while Corrigan at the other end needed to be at his best to tip Turner’s drive around the post. That said City should have equalised just before the interval when a terrific goal mouth scramble developed before Wardle gratefully gained control of the ball.
The visitors brought on Colin Bell after the break and despite him being a shadow of the player he once was, he was easily City’s best player on the day. The team as a whole still struggled to get a grip on the game though and it wasn’t long before Corrigan was in action again to deny both Maguire and Chapman. If a second goal was coming, Shrewsbury looked the more likely and sure enough, in the 58th minute Maguire’s corner was met with a well placed near post header by Chapman that flashed past Corrigan. Atkins and Maguire could both have added to city’s woes but Shrewsbury had done enough to win the tie comfortably. The backlash on City was enough to see them end their long winless streak with a comprehensive victory over Spurs in their next League game, though they still stuttered their way through the remainder of the season to finish fifteenth. Shrewsbury travelled to Fourth Division Aldershot in round five where they nearly fell victim of a minor upset themselves, drawing 2-2 before needing extra time to see off their opponents in the replay. A trip to First Division Wolves was what awaited them and Shrewsbury so nearly pulled off another cupset, seeing a Steve Biggins shot cleared off the line at one stage before needing a late penalty to salvage a replay at Gay Meadow. That replay ensured that Shrewsbury’s name appeared in the draw for the semi-finals of the cup for the only time in their history but they would ultimately be denied their big day against Arsenal as Wolves won through 3-1. Graham Turner ended the first season of a thirty-five year career in management by winning the Third Division title and taking the Shrews into the Second Division for the first time in their history. An even brighter future awaited star man, Paul Maguire, for whom the cup run proved a shop window. He would make his way to the First Division and a major part of keeping Stoke in the top flight in the early eighties. Ultimate success however went to Ian Atkins who also rose to the First Division and briefly found himself at Everton. Atkins made just seven appearances for the Toffeemen but that was enough for him to win a title winner’s medal in 1987.