The hunted have become the hunters.
Doncaster Rovers tumbled four places and out of the play-off places by virtue of one defeat on Saturday as the harsh reality of the fight for the top six in League One hit home.
Nine points separate Sheffield United in fifth and Walsall in 16th, and how quickly things can change is illustrated by Barnsley’s surge from the lower reaches of the division into the top six on the back of six successive wins.
The Reds’ win over Oldham on Saturday helped displace Doncaster from sixth, as they suffered defeat to Peterborough United, another team who leaped above them because of that one result.
It means that having occupied sixth for a few weeks, even during a spell in which they won only once in six matches, Doncaster now find themselves back in pursuit.
However, manager Paul Dickov believes that suits his team.
“If you look at our performances when we’ve been in the top six, Saturday especially, we have looked a bit nervy,” said the Doncaster manager.
“Whether that’s the big crowd, the expectation of being in the top six, I don’t know.
“What we can do now is go back to putting the pressure back on the teams in the top six.
“We want to stay in there, we want to hang in there and the only way to do that is by continuing to put the pressure on.”
Dickov refuses to put a points total on what may be required to secure play-off football in May.
His Rovers team are currently on 50 points, three shy of Barnsley, four adrift of the Blades and 17 behind tonight’s opponents Swindon, who appear to be in a three-way fight for the two automatic promotion places.
On average over the last 10 years, a team has needed to collect a minimum of 74 points to finish sixth after 46 games.
This would suggest Rovers need to win eight of their remaining 10 games. The lowest tally that secured a top-six finish was 71 in 2011, but a year earlier, Huddersfield Town only just made it into the play-offs with 80 points.
This total would leave Rovers with absolutely no margin for error, but Dickov believes such a healthy amount will not be required this season.
“I don’t have a points target in mind. I don’t think anybody can predict it this year,” he said.
“I think it will be lower than it has been in previous years purely because of how tight it is and (because of) teams taking points off each other.
“The group around us have to play each other two or three times.
“It’s very tight and it’s going to go down to the wire.
“There’s 10 games left and 30 points to play for
“It’s a crazy division. To show you how crazy it is, a couple of weeks ago we lost Saturday and Tuesday and didn’t move, and then we beat Colchester and drew at Preston and teams caught us up.”
Dickov believes mental strength will be key in a run-in that also includes Bradford City.
“You can’t be nervous you’ve got to be mentally strong,” he added. “The teams that have got the mental strength will be the teams that prevail in the end.
“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, in this league everybody is beating everybody else.
“It’s a tough league to get results in, so we’ve just got to concentrate on ourselves.”
Rovers’ recent disappointing run – one defeat in four is a positive way Dickov chooses to reflect on it – suggests they may be running out of steam at just the wrong time, but the manager is not perturbed.
“It’s important we don’t get too carried away with one defeat,” said Dickov, in relation to the home loss to Peterborough.
“We’re not a bad team because of one performance, I would have snapped anybody’s hand off, as I’m sure everybody in the club would have done, to be three points shy with 10 games to go.”
Without admitting it, the impression is Dickov would be happy going into the final game of the season at home to Scunthorpe with his team in seventh and one point from the play-offs, such is his greater confidence in their ability to play the pursuers.
The odds were against them on the Saturday before Christmas when they went down to Swindon and upset the Robins 1-0, a result the Rovers’ boss believes was a significant moment in their season.
Making lightning strike twice is the challenge tonight.
“We went down there and put in a really strong performance so we go into (tonight’s) game with a lot of confidence,” he said. “It’s important we play how we want to play. As a group we weren’t at our best on Saturday, but generally this group has responded.”
Last six games: Doncaster Rovers LLWDDL, Swindon LWDLWW.
Referee: T Harrington (Cleveland).
Last time: Doncaster 1 Swindon 0; April 1, 2013; League One.