The beauty of chaos is that it usually brings opportunity. On a night which finished with Ralph Hasenhüttl fielding questions about Danny Ings, who has hit an impasse in contract negotiations over extending his Southampton stay, the next generation helped tee up an FA Cup fourth-round tie with Arsenal on Saturday. Daniel N’Lundulu struck his first Southampton goal before James Ward-Prowse’s peach of free-kick deflated a spirited Shrewsbury Town.
Ings, who is recovering from coronavirus, was among nine first-team players missing for Southampton and, while his absence was expected, the striker holding off signing a lucrative new contract that would make him the club’s highest earner has clouded his long-term future.
Hasenhüttl insists “life will go on” with or without Ings, who has 18 months remaining on his current contract and is thought to be keen on returning to a Champions League club. Asked if he was confident Ings would stay, the Southampton manager replied: “Yes,” before adding: “If he wants Champions League football, he must score 10-15 more goals for us and we can go there. It’s not impossible, I don’t think.”
For Shrewsbury of League One, the magnitude of this game was put into perspective by absent manager Steve Cotterill spending last weekend in intensive care after testing positive for coronavirus. Cotterill watched this game from his hospital bed. “The last thing I said to the boys before the game was the manager is in hospital and for five to 10 minutes I want him sat up excited about how you’ve started the game,” said assistant manager Aaron Wilbraham, who was tasked with taking charge on the touchline. “He had his laptop and other things dropped off at the hospital yesterday so he could watch the game. I think the boys would have made him proud.
“It has been a horrible couple of weeks,” Wilbraham said. “To know he is recovering know and getting stronger every day is great news. We just want to do him proud and do everything he would expect of us. I’m really proud of the boys, the effort they put in. Every adversity that we went through, with the manager not being here and we could have used 15 excuses but not one of the players did. We were right in the game until the final minute.”
It was always going to be a big ask for Shrewsbury, 52 places below the Saints in the pyramid, to eke out a result given the start to the year they have had. They had not played for three weeks owing to a severe Covid-19 outbreak – as many as 20 players and staff tested positive – that put paid to three games and meant they only had three days of squad training since returning from isolation before this game. In the absence of Cotterill it was down to Wilbraham – who scored in this competition the age of 40 to help Rochdale to a third-round replay against Newcastle last season –to lead the team alongside academy manager David Longwell.
Shrewsbury started sprightly but struggled to stem Southampton’s flow once N’Lundulu drilled in to earn the lead. The Southampton captain Ward-Prowse, one of just four players to keep their spot in the hosts’ starting lineup, floated a pass upfield and the 19-year-old Caleb Watts, making his debut wearing the No 65, did his best to bring the ball under his spell, attempting to chest the ball down. It rolled free and N’Lundulu picked up the pieces before, encouraged by Hasenhüttl to finish, hammered in from an angle.
Josh Vela powered over and the Shrewsbury forward Shaun Whalley tormented full-back Yan Valery, one of the more experienced academy graduates in a youthful Saints side, twice sent curling efforts close but Southampton kept the visitors at arm’s length. The first had Fraser Forster, who Hasenhüttl recently termed his ‘number one B’ goalkeeper, fretting before it dipped over the crossbar on the half-hour and four minutes later he got a hand to another fine effort before being flagged offside.
Shrewsbury are unbeaten in the league since Cotterill replaced Sam Ricketts in November and had won four of their past five matches and, while that run feels a long time ago now, their newfound belief was evident. Harry Chapman went on a meandering run before shooting wide and, at the other end, the defender Aaron Pierre cleared off the line after Matija Sarkic, the Shrewsbury goalkeeper on loan from Wolves, saved from Watts. Moments earlier, Jack Stephens almost fed off the scraps of a Ward-Prowse corner. A minute from time Ward-Prowse sealed victory with his coup de grace: a delicious free-kick.