Fast-forward seven days and Steve Cotterill’s side have lost two games and conceded six in the process. Six very avoidable and incredibly soft goals.
Town’s management thought the heavy 4-1 defeat at Oxford in midweek was cruel on their side and, while the result may have flattered the U’s somewhat, the visitors were soundly beaten with a very poor defensive display. On Saturday lunchtime, however, Doncaster – without a win in nine game and having lost five on the spin – were fully deserved of their 2-0 victory at Montgomery Waters Meadow.
Shrewsbury gift-wrapped their out-of-sorts, low-on-confidence visitors a lead which provided belief and a platform for Doncaster, whose interim player-boss Andy Butler, a 37-year-old defender, named himself in the starting line-up for the first time since succeeding Darren Moore.
One-nil to Rovers was pretty unjust at the break. Shrewsbury had a good first half. They were sharp, showed good intent, attacked well with good numbers in the box and got shots off at goal. They did lack composure with the final effort.
The same cannot be said, though, for a disappointing second-half performance where the hosts did not get out the traps at all.
They did next to nothing to trouble the visitors’ goal, Doncaster goalkeeper Ellery Balcombe did not have a shot to save. Town did not attack with the same drive or desire, their passing became loose and inconsistent. And Rovers adjusted well, happy to play on the break with sharp counter attacks. Doncaster possess a talented squad, with lively attackers and only the departure of Moore to Sheffield Wednesday unravelled what was a strong push for promotion.
Of course former Salop frontman Fejiri Okenabirhie was to net on his first return to the Meadow. The former player curse strikes Town again – a player who, in most onlookers’ opinion, should not have been allowed to leave for South Yorkshire by the former management, and one who showed his natural eye for goal with a very cool finish across Matija Sarkic after just 15 minutes.
But the opener was very avoidable. Doncaster were on the back foot and had been totally penned in and Okenabirhie’s chance would not have arrived had Ro-Shaun Williams and Ethan Ebanks-Landell not hashed a simple exchange of pass.
Williams’ pass to Ebanks-Landell from the left, under minimal pressure, appeared short. And in trying to take control, Ebanks-Landell slipped and lost his footing on the Meadow turf, allowing Okenabirhie in on the angle to sweep into the far corner.
Aaron Wilbraham, the Town assistant, was at pains to blame the opener on an error, citing bad luck for Ebanks-Landell’s slip. Most Shrewsbury fans watching on via iFollow condemned the poor pass from Williams, and it was not a one-off.
The former Manchester United defender endured a difficult first period, his pass for the goal sparked a couple of real lapses in concentration and distribution.
Moving the ball may not be the stopper’s strong-point, particularly on the left side of defence, but his distribution suffered in a poor first half.
Still, as the hosts had the better of a first half, it was still a surprise – and perhaps telling – that Cotterill decided to withdraw Williams at half-time for Brad Walker, a midfielder, in what Wilbraham described afterwards as a ‘tactical’ change.
No Town player has started as many games as out-of-contract Williams this season, but with a decision to make on his future in the summer, the swap could have been telling.
So too with starting David Davis out of position at right wing-back ahead of Donald Love after the latter endured a difficult evening in Oxfordshire.
Academy striker Charlie Caton, 18, who is highly thought of at the Meadow, came on a sub for his league debut with 15 minutes left, ahead of Curtis Main. Caton was in the squad ahead of Rekeil Pyke, who Wilbraham said has a slight muscle complaint.
Cotterill will surely be concerned with how his side failed to get going after the break. Town offered precious little as an attacking threat and Doncaster looked like the only side that threatened the scoreboard any more.
Walker was productive with the ball in stepping out of defence but his awful error presented the ball for Richards’ killer second inside the final 13 minutes.
A poor second half left a flat taste at full-time as Town, generally a solid side defensively, showed further evidence of concerning open wounds in defence. A alarming worry for a side that score precious few.
Wilbraham and players have stressed for weeks now, given Shrews’ recent security, there remains plenty to play for in these final games – the priority being players’ futures. Town had – and still do – hopes of picking up enough wins to lift them higher than the 17th place they occupied for a number of months and into a position that stands them out in the recent generation or two.
What they desperately cannot afford to do is allow the manner of the results in the last two games dictate the final six games of the season, beginning with a tricky contest tomorrow against a resurgent Wigan side fighting for their lives.
Momentum taken into next season is important, but more so is the manager – watching from afar and gleaning everything from his coaching staff – making decisions on the summer transfer window as he shapes his first squad. A dozen or so players are out of contract, even those under contract are playing for a place in the manager’s plans.
In truth, most of those decisions have probably been made, but that still doesn’t mean players don’t have the chance to make their mark, and that chance has been missed by a number of players over the last week.
A positive display or two is unlikely to sway the manager – Cotterill is looking for consistent performers – but the boss will be aware of the tough end to a draining season without fans and now nothing, in terms of the league table, on the line.
But that doesn’t mean Salop players can take it easy. More sloppy errors, and performances, will not be accepted.