There was a flatness about them as they laboured to a 0-0 against relegation-threatened visitors happy to sit back and take a point. It was understandable when you looked at the League One table, even more so considering the Cobblers had two wins from their previous 16 matches, and justified when Rovers could not break them down.
For all their possession, they failed to score for the second game in a week.
Interim manager Andy Butler called it “disappointing”, centre-back Joe Wright “frustrating”.
Ultimately, though, when things are just not sparking up front, as is the case right now, defensive organisation can take a team a long way. They needed on-loan Rotherham United winger Mikel Miller’s corner to bounce out off his own team-mate, Ryan Watson, on the line but Rovers kept their first clean sheet in 11 games, a first in league football for goalkeeper Louis Jones.
If the defence held firm, the creative players looked to be running on fumes. Fejiri Okenabirhie returned to treat Butler to a specialist centre-forward having had to make do without in Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat at Crewe Alexandra, but Josh Sims, Omar Bogle and John Bostock were missing through injury and none are likely to make tomorrow’s trip to Oxford United. Nor is Scott Robertson, who went off in the first half with a foot problem.
James Coppinger livened things up when he came on at half-time – Taylor Richards’s introduction for Robertson helped too – but starting him would not have been sensible days after his 40-year-old legs ran for 90 minutes for the first time this season.
Matt Smith prompted well in midfield until a slightly tired 70th-minute pass to Jason Lokilo indicated his race was run.
Wright sprayed a couple of nice first-half passes not capitalised on, Reece James played left wing, central midfield and left-back, and midway through Butler changed formation from predecessor Darren Moore’s non-negotiable 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-4-1 to give Coppinger and Richards more creative licence but Jon Mitchell’s only difficult save was from Tom Anderson’s header at a 24th-minute corner.
“I don’t think it’s a lack of belief,” says Butler, whose side have won twice in nine games either side of his appointment. “There’s a little bit of fatigue but that applies to every single team so it’s just finding that spark. Once it comes the players grow.
“I’ll have to look back at the last two performances and think, ‘Where can I improve this?’
“We will do. We’ve got players who can open up any team at any given time, there’s just something missing for me.
“Out of the last four (the matches he has been in charge of) we’ve won two, drawn one, lost one, it’s not bad form. We want more points but we’re not in a bad place. We just have to roll our sleeves up and get on with it.”
With tired bodies come tired minds, but the 63rd-minute corner apart there was a solidity, albeit in the face of opponents more ambitious in their gamesmanship than their football.
“It’s difficult with all the games, not just physically, it has that mental toll on you as well,” admitted Wright. “But we’ve got a good group and we push each other through. You can probably hear now without the fans that we stay on top of each other to make sure we are switched on, and it’s the same on the sidelines with the gaffer and Gez (coach Paul Gerrard).”
Rovers are battling through, and Butler is waiting for a chance to put his stamp on the team.
“After the Gillingham game we have a little bit of time to get some work into them but you have to be mindful of rest periods,” said Butler. “You’ve got to manage the time on their feet.
“It is difficult to put your stamp on things but that will come. I’m fully confident in the squad we’ve got and the team we’ve got. We’re a good side and you’ve got to keep believing – we’re in a good position.”
They are, but in a marathon of a promotion race nobody seems to want to win, a spark would not go amiss.
Doncaster Rovers: Jones; Halliday, Anderson, Wright, John (Coppinger 46); Smith (Gomes 72), Robertson (Richards 27); Lokilo, Simoes, James; Okenabirhie. Unused substitutes: Balcombe, Amos, Greaves, Horton.
Northampton Town: Mitchell; Kioso, Horsfall, Jones, Mills; Hoskins, Sowerby, McWilliams (Morris 57), Miller (Marshall 74); Edmondson (Rose 61), Watson. Unused substitutes: Harriman, Bolger, Jones, Berry.
Referee: T Nield (West Yorkshire).
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