The first recorded football club in the county town of Shropshire was known simply as Shrewsbury FC, and after being founded in 1874 won both the Birmingham Senior Cup and the Shropshire Senior Cup in 1878 before being disbanded in 1879.
Other early clubs were Shrewsbury Engineers from 1878, Shrewsbury Town, no connection with the present club, from 1879 and Shrewsbury Castle Blues who emerged in the early 1880s.
The present Shrewsbury Town was formed in May 1886, following the demise of the Castle Blues and a side named Shropshire Wanderers and first played on a ground in the middle of the Monkmoor racecourse in the north eastern part of the town. However, since the racecourse grandstand was too far from the pitch and spectators could only watch from flat standing areas a move was made in 1889 to a ground at Amblers Field.
Shrewsbury Town entered league competition for the first time when they became founder members of the Shropshire & District League in 1890, finishing runners-up and winning the Welsh Cup in their first season. After four seasons at Amblers Field, they moved again, spending two years playing at a ground to the south east of the town at Sutton Lane. In 1895 the club joined the Birmingham & District League and made a further move, playing on the ground of the Copthorne army barracks.
In 1910, after being told they could no longer use the army ground the club accepted an offer from Shrewsbury Corporation to play at a field known as Gay Meadow which it had recently bought. Leased to the club, this was just outside the town centre, on the banks of the River Severn within sight of Shrewsbury Abbey. The reason for the field being named Gay Meadow is not clear, with theories being it was derived from the Welsh word Cae, meaning a field, or Old English words galla, barren wet land, or gat, a goat. Another possibility is the land was originally owned by a Richard Gegh. What seems likeliest however, is that due to its use over hundreds of years for such entertainments as fairs, carnivals and circuses it simply became known as a field of gaiety.
A small wooden stand was built on the east side of the ground and the first match to take place there on 20 August 1910 drew a crowd of up to 1,000 people to watch a pre-season practice match. The first competitive game saw the visit of Wolverhampton Wanderers Reserves, on 10 September 1910, Shrewsbury losing 2–1.
A replacement for the original stand was opened in October 1922 and the club finished that season as Birmingham & District League champions. An application to join the Football League was made without success in 1937, and perhaps to improve their chances of election the club then switched to the Midland League and in their first season achieved a double of winning the league title and the Welsh Cup for a second time.
Ground improvements paid for by the supporters’ club were carried out during the 1930s, perhaps with an eye on achieving Football League status, with the concreting of the terraces and the partial covering of the Station End carried out in stages up to 1937. In 1939 the club narrowly lost out to Accrington Stanley in the voting for election to the league, and perhaps encouraged by this, further improvements that year saw the roofing of the central section of the Riverside terrace on the west side of the ground and the addition at the north end of the main stand of a new section with about 250 seats.
After the war further Midland League championships came in 1945 and 1948 in which year Gay Meadow staged an amateur international between England and Wales. Two years later the club finally achieved Football League status after having applied every year since 1937. In the end this came about due to the expansion of the league from 88 to 92 clubs, and despite only having finished mid-table in the Midland League over the previous two seasons Shrewsbury topped the poll for election to Division Three (North).
The first ever Football League game at Gay Meadow saw neighbours Wrexham beaten 2-1 on 21 August 1950. It was rumoured there were over 22,000 spectators inside the ground, but the official figure was given as 16,070. Just five days later Lincoln City paid their first visit to the ground and made it a good start with a 2-1 victory, the goals coming from outside-left Willie Windle and his inside man Roy Finch. The attendance of 11,019 was to remain the largest ever to see a match at Gay Meadow between the two clubs.
With two northern clubs in Grimsby Town and Chesterfield being relegated into the third tier Shrewsbury, as the most southerly of the northern section clubs were then switched to Division Three (South) for the 1951/52 season meaning an end for the time being to any further encounters with the Imps.
No further ground improvements took place until the mid-1950s when trees lining the road to Gay Meadow, known as The Narrows, were felled to improve access and the roof on the Riverside Terrace was extended to the north. In 1959 the freehold was bought from the council for £6,750 and that year also saw the installation of floodlights at a cost of £12,000 with the money being raised by the supporters’ club.
Several mostly undistinguished seasons had culminated in Shrewsbury slipping down into the newly-formed Fourth Division in 1958, but they took the fourth promotion place a year later to return to the third tier. The record attendance for the ground came in April 1961 when a large contingent of travelling supporters helped swell the crowd to 18,917 for the visit of a promotion-chasing Walsall side.
The Imps’ relegation after nine seasons in Division Two resulted in their second visit to Gay Meadow in mid-April 1962 on their way to a further relegation. Placed 22nd in the Third Division table at the time City came away with a goal-less draw against a side three places above them, the game marking the last appearance for the club of goalkeeper Bill Heath.
Further improvements to the ground took place in 1966 when the remaining section of the Riverside Terrace was roofed and a new stand was added at the south end of the Main Stand. This had a different roof line to the existing stands on that side which were given a new continuous roof at the same time. The new stand reduced the ground capacity to 16,000 with 4,153 seats.
With the Imps having sunk into the fourth tier there was another lengthy gap before the two clubs met again after Shrewsbury joined City there in 1974 following their own relegation after a dozen mostly mid-table seasons in Division Three. Player-manager Alan Durban, in charge for just under a year, had been unable to save the Shrews from relegation but at the beginning of November they were in second place and already looking well-set for a quick return to Division Three. As for the Imps, supporters were just beginning to wake up to the realisation that something special was starting to happen under the management of Graham Taylor with the previous two games having been won 4-1 away and 3-0 at home to leave the side handily placed just outside the top four promotion places.
In a memorable game against a side with the best defensive record in the division City went 2-0 up through winger Dick Krzywick and striker Peter Graham, preserved their lead with a penalty save by Peter Grotier, then sealed an emphatic win with late goals from midfielder Dave Smith and Graham’s fellow striker John Ward to record their biggest ever win at Gay Meadow. Shrewsbury, however, had the last laugh, as they remained in second place for the rest of the season while City missed out on promotion by the narrowest of margins in fifth place.
But after a record-breaking 1975/76 season under Graham Taylor City quickly renewed acquaintance with Shrewsbury back in the Third Division with a visit to Gay Meadow towards the end of January 1977. The Shrews had spent much of the season in and around the top three but had slipped to seventh following a home defeat by Bury, while City, having an inconsistent season, were in mid-table, having thanks to postponements and FA Cup involvement, only played three league games since mid-November. A penalty from centre half Sam Ellis was not enough to prevent City from suffering their first defeat in four visits to the ground as they went down 2-1.
Both clubs finished the 1976/77 season just above mid-table so City were back at Gay Meadow in January 1978. The Shrews, after being in the top two during the autumn had slipped to 10th place, while the Imps, after the departure of Graham Taylor to Watford in the summer had struggled under his former assistant George Kerr. Following Kerr’s dismissal in mid-December, new manager Willie Bell had lifted the Imps out of the relegation zone on goal difference with draws in each of his first five games in charge. Peter Graham became the first City player to score more than once at the ground as his second goal in three visits there was enough to give Bell his first win as manager and move City up to 18th place. Lincoln eventually finished well clear of relegation with Shrewsbury again in mid-table, but when the two clubs met again at Gay Meadow the following September, the Imps had made an even worse start to the season under Bell than they had under his predecessor the year before. Rooted to the bottom of the early season league table with five defeats from seven league games they went down 2-0 to a fifth-placed Shrewsbury side.
The 1978/79 season ended with the two clubs at exact opposite ends of the division and Shrewsbury’s championship win was followed by ten seasons in the second tier as the two clubs again went their separate ways for many years.
Promotion to the Second Division called for ground improvements, with the 1922-built central section of the main stand demolished and replaced by a new 1,000-seat section, bringing the combined capacity of the stand on that side to 4,500. This was the last major building work to take place at the ground although later changes saw the addition of an Executive Suite in the stand and the provision of a TV gantry above the Riverside Terrace.
A move to a new ground began to be considered in the mid-1980s, when plans were drawn up for a new stadium to the north of the town with a Sainsbury supermarket to be built on the site of Gay Meadow. However, with Shrewsbury relegated from the Second Division in 1989 and Sainsbury’s developing elsewhere in the town, the plans were abandoned.
Following the Taylor Report on the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 the capacity of the ground was reduced from 16,000 to around 8,000. This was mainly due to the restriction caused by the only approach to the ground being by the small side street ‘The Narrows’ meaning potential problems with evacuation and access for emergency services.
Meanwhile, Lincoln City’s next game at Gay Meadow came in the group stage of what was then known as the Autoglass Trophy in November 1991. After various ups and down since their last visit to the ground they were now in the fourth tier while Shrewsbury were in their third season back in Division Three after relegation. Both clubs were in the lower reaches of their respective divisions, with City having made a particularly poor start to the season, including a 6-0 home defeat to Barnet under manager Steve Thompson, about to complete a year in charge. In an uninspiring match City went down to a 1-0 defeat in front of a crowd of just 615, the smallest ever to see a meeting of the two clubs at the ground.
With City improving to finish the 1991/92 season in 10th place and Shrewsbury relegated the two clubs met in the basement division, now named Division 3 in mid-January 1993. With City having a better time of things in Thompson’s second full season in charge both clubs were challenging for the fourth promotion spot with Shrewsbury two places and one point ahead of the Imps in sixth place. Graham Bressington gave City an early lead with a penalty but Shrewsbury then took control of the match with three goals in 22 minutes either side of half time before on-loan striker Neil Matthews pulled a goal back. The 3-2 win for the Shrews moved them into the top four as City slipped a place, but with neither side able to sustain a promotion challenge to the end of the season both finished well short of the promotion places.
In the meantime, there had been further proposals to build a new stadium. This was to have a 10,000-seat capacity and would be located a mile to the east of the town centre. Funding was to come from the sale of Gay Meadow to the council who proposed to replace it with a car park. However, this came to nothing when the council changed its spending priorities
City were back at Gay Meadow just over a year later at the beginning of March 1994 and after three defeats on the ground were back to winning ways with a 2-1 scoreline against a second-placed Shrewsbury side who had gone 16 league matches unbeaten. City themselves, under manager Keith Alexander who had replaced Steve Thompson the previous summer had seldom been much above mid-table and were currently 18th and without an away win since beating non-league Witton Albion in the first round of the FA Cup. But, after Shrewsbury equalised City midfielder David Hill’s 64th minute goal the Imps took the points thanks to 17-year-old substitute Darren Huckerby who came off the bench for his league debut to hit the winner six minutes from the end.
Despite the blip of their loss to City Shrewsbury went on to suffer only one further defeat in the remainder of the 1993/94 season to take the championship, while the Imps ended it still in 18th place leading to a parting of the ways with Keith Alexander.
With Shrewsbury back in the third tier and no further proposals for a new ground, plans were made to redevelop Gay Meadow. This would have involved moving the pitch slightly to the north to allow the construction of a new stand at the Wakeman End, along with another one at the Station End and a third to replace the Riverside Terrace. However, with the poor access to the ground restricting the capacity to 10,000 for safety reasons there was little point in developing what would have been an 18,000-seater stadium.
After three undistinguished seasons in what was now known as Division 2 Shrewsbury were back down again to face the Imps in the basement division in the 1997/98 season. The intervening years had been almost as undistinguished for City in the lower division, but by the end of March 1998 controversial manager John Beck had set them up for a promotion challenge before his dismissal and replacement by his assistant Shane Westley. They were in the third play-off place going into the game, with Shrewsbury well down in the lower half of the league table. The lowest ever attendance for a league match between the two clubs at the ground of 1,877 saw goals in each half from strikers Colin Alcide and Lee Thorpe enable City to consolidate their play-off position with a 2-0 win and eventually go on to gain automatic promotion in third place. However, with their stay in the higher division being the briefest possible the Imps were back at Gay Meadow again two years later on April Fool’s Day 2000, with this time a 2-1 victory thanks to another goal from Lee Thorpe and one from Gavin Gordon. With club chairman John Reames in charge of the team City were just below mid-table at the time and remained there at the end of a mediocre season while Shrewsbury avoided relegation out of the league by the narrowest of margins on goal difference.
In 1999, plans had once again been announced for a new stadium, provisionally titled the New Meadow, on the southern outskirts of the town. This would have 10,000 seats with scope for expansion to over four times as many, with the cost of it to be met by the sale of Gay Meadow to property developers. However, the scheme was to be delayed for some years partly due to opposition from local residents.
City were at Gay Meadow again in October 2000 for their second visit in the calendar year with former assistant Phil Stant now in charge of the side. Shrewsbury took a 3-0 half time lead, before Lee Thorpe’s third goal in three successive visits to the ground and a Steve Holmes penalty were not enough to earn a point for the Imps. Both teams were once again placed in the lower half of the league table and that was where they finished the season. Just over a year later, with Alan Buckley having replaced Stant as manager the previous March the Imps were in their usual lower half league placing while Shrewsbury were just about holding down a play-off spot. Although the home side took an early lead, what was only the Imps’ second-ever draw on the ground came thanks to another Steve Holmes penalty awarded after goalkeeper Mark Cartwright was sent off with less than half an hour gone for pulling down striker Dave Cameron.
City after an 11-game win-less run to finish the 2001/02 season ended it in 22nd place although 10 points clear of last place, while Shrewsbury missed out on a play-off place by a single point. The 2002/03 season was to be disastrous for them, however, as despite achieving a third round FA Cup win over manager Kevin Ratcliffe’s old club Everton they finished bottom of the league. With City hit by financial troubles during the summer they were now managed by Keith Alexander again and despite putting something of a cut-price squad together almost from scratch they were in seventh place, ahead of their hosts on goal difference, when they visited Gay Meadow on the last day of August. Despite once again falling behind to an early goal, this time from Shrewsbury’s prolific striker Luke Rodgers, the Imps took the points thanks to a second half goal from substitute striker Adie Mike, scrambled in following a long throw, and an 89th-minute penalty from midfielder Ben Sedgemore.
Shrewsbury spent only a single season in the Conference, returning to the league after beating Aldershot Town in the promotion play-off final. City, by contrast, having against all the odds reached their own play-off final in 2003 were unsuccessful then and again in the semi-final a year later. The two clubs therefore met again at Gay Meadow on the first day of the 2004/05 season. It was not a happy return to the league for the Shrews as a second half goal by striker Gary Taylor-Fletcher was enough to give the Imps the points. After a strong finish to the season Lincoln once again reached the play-off final but again were unsuccessful, while Shrewsbury’s final placing of 21st did at least see them well clear of another relegation. The Imps repeated their 1-0 winning score-line in the last away game of the 2005/06 season on their way to yet another unsuccessful play-off attempt. The scorer this time was defender Gareth McAuley, heading home a free kick which Shrewsbury’s 19-year-old local-born goalkeeper Joe Hart had failed to collect.
With progress on the new stadium to the south of the town having been slow for a number of years work had now begun on it with completion scheduled for the summer of 2007. What was City’s last ever game at Gay Meadow therefore came on 9 September 2006 and for the third time in a row saw a 1-0 win for the Imps with the goal being scored by midfielder Lee Frecklington. With John Schofield now in charge after succeeding Keith Alexander it was City’s fourth win in four away league games from the start of the season and kept them in second place, but they eventually finished the season with another play-off semi-final loss while Shrewsbury went one further, losing out to Bristol Rovers in the final.
The final Football League game to be played at Gay Meadow saw a 2-2 draw against Grimsby Town on 5 May 2007, while the final competitive match was against Milton Keynes Dons nine days later in the first leg of the League 2 play-off semi-final. The game finished 0-0 in front of an attendance of 7,126, slightly down on that for the Grimsby game. The following month several friendly matches took place involving supporters, with the last of all on 22 June between the ‘Away Supporters’ team and the club’s backroom staff.
An auction of items was held at the ground and saw 500 of the seats sold to League of Wales side Caernarfon Town while what was said to be the oldest working football turnstile in the country, was sold for £3,050 to a local Shrewsbury Town fan who admitted afterwards she was not sure what to do with it. Something of a museum piece, according to an unsubstantiated legend the turnstile had originally been located at the old Crystal Palace ground used for Cup Finals in the 1890s.
Demolition of the stadium began In September 2007 and within a month it was reduced to rubble. In 2009 building commenced on an estate of 62 town houses and 117 apartments and in 2012 the first residents moved in to what was named The Old Meadow with construction completed in 2015.
The new 9,875 all-seater stadium currently known as Montgomery Waters Meadow was brought into use in July 2007 and since then all City’s games have taken place there. While like most replacement grounds it is not as conveniently placed for the town centre as the old one it does not have the same susceptibility for flooding as Gay Meadow had due to its nearness to the river. In fact, its location almost on the bank of the River Severn was part of the unique character of Gay Meadow, with balls occasionally being kicked over the roof of the Riverside Terrace and having to be retrieved from the river. Famously, for a period of over 40 years this was done by a local man named Fred Davies who would paddle his home-made coracle out onto the river for a fee of 5 shillings (25p) for each ball recovered. By the time he was succeeded by his nephew in 1986 the fee was still no more than 50p, but in the later years of the stadium use of a boat ceased and instead a long pole with a net sufficed.
Gay Meadow must rank as one of Lincoln City’s best away grounds in terms of results achieved, although they only played a total of 17 games there. But of these, ten saw victories achieved, including in each of their last four visits there. Four of the ten wins were by 1-0, including all of the last three games, and four by 2-1 to make these the commonest scorelines.
Goals scored totalled 24, with 4-0 being the biggest winning score, with no more than two being managed in any other game while the biggest losing margin was 0-2 which only happened once although three goals were conceded on two occasions.
Twenty different players scored for City at Gay Meadow, the top scorer with three being Lee Thorpe who scored for three games in a row. No player scored more than one in a game, with Peter Graham’s brace coming in two games out of three, while Steve Holmes scored his two goals (both penalties) in successive visits. The goals scored by Sam Ellis, Graham Bressington and Ben Sedgemore were also spot kicks, making five penalties out of the total goals scored of 24.