TIVERTON Town's stuttering form continued as they fought out a frustrating draw with lowly Bishops Cleeve on a heavy Ladysmead pitch on Saturday.
After a bright opening which saw Josh Searle and Owen Howe go close, the first half soon fizzled out into a contest of attrition as both teams struggled to piece together a meaningful attack.
The floodgates briefly threatened to open after Tivvy made a seemingly-vital breakthrough, early in the second half, via substitute Jules Emati-Emati. But the visitors showed great spirit to level through Saul Williams, and continued to threaten on the counter-attack as the hosts searched desperately for a winner.
And Tiverton boss Mark Saunders was left frustrated at the lack of adaptability shown by his side on a heavy surface.
"I think we are still trying to play the same type of football as we were in the first half of the season, but on a mud heap you're not going to get away with it," he complained.
"Sometimes you have to go more direct. I said that (to the players) at half-time. And then the one time we put a ball over the top it's a goal. You can't play nice square balls in midfield on a bog of a pitch. I want us to play football, but we have to think of the conditions.
"The conditions were not there to go and play nice football in and around the halfway line. They were happy with that but as soon as we got them turning they were on the backfoot.
"I don't think we did it often enough though. The only time we did, we scored a goal."
Considering the Ladysmead pitch was under nearly a foot of water over Christmas, it was an impressive achievement in itself that the game even went ahead.
But despite its surprisingly healthy appearance, the turf is clearly yet to make a full recovery, and it soon became evident that Tiverton's patient, passing game would not pay dividends on an infuriatingly slow and uneven surface.
This did not stop Tivvy trying to pass through their opponents, and the initial signs were promising as they looked for a first win in six league and cup matches.
Josh Concanen played in a fine cross for the energetic Searle, who could only steer a tricky header at keeper James Nortei.
Just a minute later, Howe was sent clean through, but the youngster lacked composure and hastily poked his effort wide.
That was as good as the first half got for Tivvy, whose keeper Chris Wright had to be on his toes – literally – as he plucked Matt Liddiard's chip out of the air after he had ghosted in behind Tom Gardner.
A neat passing move saw Joe Bushin free Howe who teed up Andy Taylor, but the former Exeter City man blazed his effort over with Bushin pleading for a return pass.
But Bishops Cleeve continued to threaten and, after an off-the-pace Russell Jee cheaply gave away possession in the corner, Williams blasted a cross-cum-shot across Wright's goal with nobody there to apply the finish.
Jee was unsurprisingly replaced at the break by Emati-Emati as Saunders switched to a three-pronged attack, but it was the visitors who threatened next, with Lee Jake comically losing his footing and taking a tumble when clean through on goal.
Emati-Emati then had rather more luck as the hosts finally broke the deadlock, emphatically volleying home after Wright's clearance found its way through.
The goal added a new-found impetus to Tiverton's play, but Bishops Cleeve soon hit back to stun Ladysmead into silence.
A free-kick was not adequately cleared and Williams fired home from the edge of the box with aplomb to draw the sides level.
Tivvy worked hard as they searched for a winner, but they looked devoid of ideas and left themselves open at the back.
Emati-Emati sent a powerful header on target, only for Nortei to hold well, before Wright showed equally impressive handling from a low drive.
Nardiello's arrival injected some pace into the attack, but play degenerated into a midfield scrap which the visitors relished, and the game petered out to end in a deserved draw.
Despite it being just Tivvy's second game in three weeks, Saunders refused to blame a lack of match practice, and conceded his side had to get back to winning ways if they were to keep hold of a play-off spot.
"I don't think it was rustiness. I just think it is choosing the wrong option," he said. "We looked like we had run out of ideas. We look like we have used all our ideas in the first half of the season.
"Although we are not losing I am really disappointed because we are not playing anywhere near as well as we did.
"Draws are not good enough – not good enough at all. No disrespect to Bishops Cleeve but we should be beating teams like that, but we don't look like it at the moment."
Tiverton Town team: Wright, Concanen, Alex Faux, Hill, Searle (Nodwell, 74), Gardner, Taylor, Steele, Howe (Nardiello, 79), Bushin, Jee (Emati-Emati, 45)