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“At Accrington away, I think he rang me 26 times in the first half,” says Aaron Wilbraham, Shrewsbury Town’s assistant manager. “He” is Steve Cotterill who, until last week, had not seen his team play in the flesh for four months, 49 days of which he spent at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, including a weekend in intensive care. “The problem was a lot of the time his stream was a minute-and-a-half behind. He’d ring and say: ‘Have we cleared that corner?’ Other times I’d have to say: ‘Gaffer, they’ve just scored.’ He would be: ‘Argh!’ and go off his head … I used to love it when we’d score because I knew I would get a phone call 90 seconds later and he would be over the moon!”
The former Cheltenham and Burnley manager is edging closer to being back in his natural habitat. He remains on steroids, blood thinners and antibiotics but has attended Shrewsbury’s past two matches, giving team-talks in the dressing room before and after taking in the game from the directors’ box with a pen and paper, above a giant flag that reads: “Get Well Soon Gaffer From Your Blue and Amber Army.”
On Sunday he is set to take a seat in the stands at Crewe, where the curtain will come down on a rollercoaster League One season. It is no longer a case of him poring over footage of training or scribbling down notes in the middle of the night from ward A800.
“I’d wake up and have eight photographs of A4 paper that he had sketched in his hospital bed, and it would come through at like 3.56am,” says Wilbraham. “He would not be able to sleep in the hospital with all these machines keeping him awake. I’d wake up to the team, what to work on, where everyone was stood on set pieces, for and against, wide free-kicks, for and against, throw-ins. Everything would be so detailed. He would have the subs written out, the people who were not on the bench. Everything.”
With awards season in full swing, few will point towards a team competing to finish 16th in the table, but it is worth remembering the story at Shrewsbury this season. When Cotterill took over, they were second bottom of League One with nine points from 13 games. He only had December in charge – he won manager of the month after a seven-game unbeaten streak – before testing positive for Covid-19, when duties were handed over to Wilbraham, his former captain at Bristol City, and the academy manager, David Longwell. Twenty-six games later, it has been a remarkable team effort.
Wilbraham spoke to Cotterill every day during his absence. “Even when he was at his worst, because at some points he was on 92% oxygen – both his lungs had pretty much collapsed – and yet he was still going through tactics, coughing non-stop while he was trying to speak. I said to him: ‘Gaffer, just have a rest because you do not sound good.’ Even the nurse was telling him he needed to chill out. He was lucky to not die, that’s how bad it was.”
There was one day, though, where the correspondence came a little later than usual. “The second time he got admitted to hospital [with Covid pneumonia], I’d not heard from him and I thought something was wrong. His wife texted me: ‘Steve’s been readmitted, but he’ll call you later to discuss tactics for Saturday.’ I was like: ‘Wow, he’s still thinking about it.’”
Cotterill was first admitted to hospital in January when his condition deteriorated at home in Bristol. He was bed-bound for eight days, losing weight and struggling to eat. “A specialist tried to put it in football terms. They said to him: ‘You were at the bottom of the league, nearly being relegated. If you hadn’t come in then, it could have been a whole different story.’”
Shrewsbury’s chief executive, Brian Caldwell, has been among those telling Cotterill to take it steady ever since. Not that it is easy. “You can’t keep him down at all,” says Caldwell. “When he walked into the boardroom [last Saturday] I said: ‘Happy new year,’ because it was the first time I’ve seen him since last year. It was always his aim to get to a game or two before the end of the season and to be back fully fit, so to speak, for next season.”
Cotterill’s last training session on New Year’s Eve, before the club’s Sundorne Castle base was shutdown following a Covid-19 outbreak, was typical of his full-throttle character. “I’ve never seen a manager run so much,” says the Shrewsbury captain, Ollie Norburn. “We did a crossing and finishing drill and he was in the middle of the pitch doing it, taking it. He was sprinting across, screaming and shouting, getting intensity into the session.”
That was the first and only day the loanees Matthew Pennington and Harry Chapman, signed until the end of the season, sampled training under Cotterill. Last weekend was the first time Cotterill had met Nathanael Ogbeta, Curtis Main and David Davis since they signed in January. The same goes for Shrewsbury’s first-team analyst, Ben Cirne. Until last Saturday, he conversed with players from his hospital bed, via a loudspeaker in the home dressing room.
“You wouldn’t hear a pin drop,” says Wilbraham. “When the lads walked in to see him for the first time in four months, they had a big smile on their face. He was having a laugh, taking the mick out of their haircuts, the way they dress, and it was like he had never been away.”
For Shrewsbury’s players, a strange, condensed season developed into an unthinkable one. “I know he is our manager but sometimes you just have to put the football side away,” says Norburn. “This is a man that has been on his deathbed and in four months he has turned it around and is heading back to normal. It is great to see someone who has overcome such a crazy time.”
When a marathon season ends for Norburn, another challenge awaits. Later this month, together with friends and family, he will walk 30 miles from his home in Bolton to Ribby Hall Village to raise money and awareness for Sands (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society). Speaking to the Guardian in November, Norburn reflected on the tragic passing of his son, Louie. “I think about him all the time and the aim is just to do him proud,” he said.
• To donate to Ollie Norburn’s challenge, click here