Still toothless but plenty of heart: Doncaster Rovers scrap for their lives in Lincoln City stalemate
If Doncaster Rovers are going to give themselves a chance of escaping danger in the second half of the season it will take more performances like this ahead of the new year.
They may have lacked real threat and the ruthless touch in the final third as they battled out a goalless draw with Lincoln City, but what was important was that Rovers did just that - they battled.
Rovers showed a good deal of spirit and determination to be the aggressors until the end of a clash that could so easily have petered out. They ran themselves into the ground and barely relented.
And they showed a decent amount of resolve too - ensuring that while they faced pressure from the visitors, they stood up to it rather well.
There have been suggestions that Rovers have become harder to beat in the wake of their humbling at Charlton Athletic. While there have been moments of real vulnerability along the way to contradict such a statement, on this occasion the evidence was strong that it is indeed the case.
It would have been surprising to see them capitulate in this game and feebly emerge on the losing end. And there have not been many times this season where that could have been said of them.
That will provide a good deal of confidence to the group for the high pressure run ahead, particularly when considering how altered the back five was from a typical league line-up.
An illness for Pontus Dahlberg gave Louis Jones his first opportunity for a start in League One this season, while Branden Horton kept his place at left back following impressive showings in cup action.
And Joseph Olowu got a long-awaited shot at his natural position. Despite creating his own problems at times, the centre half played superbly and mopped up after himself with real confidence for a player as inexperienced at senior level.
Jones stepped up superbly between the sticks. While the visitors’ own lack of ruthlessness in the final third meant the Thorne-born keeper was not presented with much to tax him, he was arguably as calm and composed as he has ever been at senior level.
He was commanding with movement and decision making to offer real assurance at the back. And there was a noticeable improvement in how decisive he was with distribution.
Also important was the covering work by others higher up the pitch - typified by a brilliant last ditch block from Aidan Barlow deep into stoppage time that prevented Lasse Sorensen from snatching a late winner.
What let Rovers down on the afternoon was their play going forward.
And the first half in particular was not great.
Movement ahead of the ball was good, but rarely capitalised upon. Balls out from the back or deep midfield were too slow to come, making it very easy for the opposition to close down the space or cut it off entirely.
The result was a thoroughly ponderous half of football from Rovers. One where they controlled possession without ever really threatening the Lincoln goal.
And it played into the hands of a visiting team set up to counter attack and very threatening at it too.
Lincoln lacked composure and a ruthless touch inside the final third. But the manner in which they got the ball there, with quality, confidence and speed, made them the more threatening side when on the attack.
Their best opportunity came when Sorensen charged to meet a cross and powered a header on goal which Jones somehow clawed off his line.
They never got as close again - and boss Michael Appleton was angry with his front line for failing to take their chances in the first half.
Rovers’ response in the second half ensured there was little opportunity for the visitors to threaten in such a manner again, barring a late flurry.
Rovers upped their tempo, got the ball forward quicker and gave Lincoln something to think about in defensive terms.
The introduction of Barlow for the injured John Bostock helped, with the former Manchester United youngster pushed into the number ten role which allowed Tommy Rowe more influence from deeper.
Jon Taylor’s return from injury - coming as a surprise starter - gave Rovers a fresh dimension at times but there is certainly better to come with the winger back in the side.
On a couple of occasions early on, he was sent racing into space by curling balls out of midfield but it did not happen enough, especially in the first half when the dynamism in the side was not there.
Taylor inevitably tired - but he was not the only one.
And it brought a fresh reminder of just how short staffed Rovers are at the present, particularly when it comes to game-changing options.
The bench on the afternoon had an average age of 18 and a half, with Barlow the elder statesman at the ripe old age of 21.
Having put in so much effort throughout, it was unsurprising to see players wilting, even if their determination to chase the win was nowhere near as diminished.
The effort to press the opposition defence was absent in the later stages, and it impacted on concentration too, as demonstrated when Joe Dodoo took his eye off the ball for Rovers’ golden opportunity to pinch the win in added time.
He rose to meet a wonderful cross from Kyle Knoyle but the ball ricocheted off his shoulder rather than his head and went narrowly wide when begging to be buried.
More ruthlessness is desperately needed to get Rovers out of their plight.
But we knew that already.
It was the effort levels that told us plenty about Rovers’ stomach for the fight ahead.