With Shrewsbury and Exeter also having lost on Friday, the same permutations applied ahead of today’s game: on top of our game we’re looking for favours, this time from Barnsley and Peterborough, if we are to go up a place or two, while this time we could even drop a place if Fleetwood were to do what we failed to and beat Bristol Rovers. Really after a poor performance and defeat and back on home turf it was a case of anything less than getting back to winning ways counting as a disappointment. Burton have rescued their season after a decidedly sticky start under Hesselbaink and, with three wins out of the last five (including over Barnsley and Wycombe), have pulled clear of the relegation zone, albeit not yet sufficiently to feel really relaxed. Hopefully relaxed enough to be a tad below par.
In the end we did end up with the points – and we got the favours we were looking for, to sit at the end of the day in 10th place, top of the also-rans. But what for a period had looked capable of being a repeat of the Shrewsbury game turned into something altogether tougher, an ugly contest which we failed to either run away with or shut the door on, with a two-goal cushion twice pared back and us hanging on in the final stages.
The team showed a couple of what looked like forced changes. Sessegnon was deemed not available so soon after playing on Friday, with Egbo getting his first start since October, which meant Thomas switching to left-back, while Leaburn was also not risked after picking up a knock. Bonne came in for him. Otherwise it was same as before, with Kane and Kilkenny taking the two vacant slots on the bench. When it came to renewing old acquaintances, MacGillivray was in goal for Burton, Oshilaja in midfield for them, while Kirk and Lavelle were not available being on loan from us (with the latter injured in any event).
Burton had the better of the opening exchanges, with Hector being required to make important interceptions, although Campbell had a decent run down the left and a fierce shot pushed into the air by MacGillivray then cleared. That proved the hors d’oeuvre as inside the first 10 minutes we took the lead with a quite superb goal, all of Rak-Sakyi’s making. He collected the ball on the right touchline, no particular danger. But he cut inside and moved into the box, then as their defenders shaped for him to go onto his left side again touched it the other way, completely wrongfooting them, then struck the shot well across MaGillivray and into the far corner of the net. That one will have had the Palace minders thinking about where’s best for him next season.
That clearly rocked Burton and their defensive frailties stayed to the fore. Thomas on the overlap put in a good cross which neither Bonne nor Rak-Sakyi could convert, then Bonne held it up well and played in Morgan whose shot was saved. And before 20 minutes were up we doubled our lead. This time Fraser lent Rak-Sakyi a helping hand, taking it forward and playing it to him to run onto. He still had to get past a rather lame challenge by their defender but did that, and put the ball into a similar spot to before. When was the last time we had a player on a hat-trick before 20 minutes?
Perhaps predictably we eased off a little after that and Burton had a better spell. Rak-Sakyi did manage to chip the ball into the box from the right for Campbell, who met it on the half-volley but sent it just over the bar. But Burton’s first chance came with a free header, their guy having escaped his marker. Fortunately he headed straight at Maynard-Brewer, followed shortly after by another good position as Hector tried an ill-advised chip over a guy’s head and failed to clear him, making amends with a timely recovery challenge.
Now against Shrewsbury we effectively put the game to bed with a third before the break. There was a third goal, but this one went against us. From a throw the ball was lofted into the area and Maynard-Brewer decided it was his to claim. But Hector couldn’t get out of the way and Maynard-Brewer couldn’t collect, the ball dropping loose and hooked into an empty net by their guy. Keepers make mistakes and this was one.
That rather changed the mood at the break. But not long into the second half it seemed it wouldn’t matter as we restored the advantage. A ball forward found Bonne, who held it up and played it back for Campbell, then made his way into the box. Campbell made it to the byline and his low cross wasn’t dealt with decisively by the Burton defenders, allowing Bonne – by now in poacher position – to prod the loose ball home.
It got rather messy again after that and after the hour Holden made the first changes. Egbo, Fraser and Dobson all departed (Egbo had started the game looking pretty rusty but grew into it, Dobson seemed to be limping), with Henry, Payne and the returning Kane coming on. And the chance to finish the game off seemed to arrive with about 20 minutes left as Rak-Sakyi cut across the box from the right and seemed to be caught by a trailing leg. I thought it was a penalty, but the ball ran on to Bonne who understandably took the shot, which clipped the top of the crossbar. Whether the ref thought he’d played advantage, or just that it wasn’t a penalty, I don’t know (surely another case for football clearly following rugby union and allowing the ref to indicate he is playing an advantage and can come back for an original offence).
Instead with 15 minutes left on the clock Burton were back in it, with another goal conceded by us from a set piece. A corner found a guy in space at the far post, his header back across was flicked goalward. Morgan did manage to hoof it out, but the ball had crossed the line.
That set up a final 20 minutes during which we were pretty much under the cosh and happy for the final whistle to come. Whereas against Bristol Rovers Holden had arguably missed the opportunity to change shape before we went behind, this time around the triple substitution left us rather lightweight and vulnerable. Burton almost levelled things immediately after their goal, their guy getting around Rak-Sakyi in our box and shooting into the side netting. We could have finally settled things in the final 10 minutes as Payne and Bonne combined and the ball was sent over to the far post for Rak-Sakyi to run onto for the match ball. Any low shot would surely have found the net, but instead he caught it on the volley and sent it over the bar.
Rather than being able to relax we had Payne given a yellow for a badly timed tackle, Morgan and Bonne were taken off for Mitchell and Kanu, and it was down to the corner flag when possible. In five minutes of stoppage time Payne was to receive a second yellow and a red for another tackle which missed the ball but caught the guy. Fortunately it was too late to make a difference and blessedly the whistle came with us still with our noses in front.
So, six to go and we are as high as we can realistically get this season. Nobody is going to be predicting us to get anything at Ipswich next time out, especially as they must still be smarting from the stoppage time at The Valley and desperately need the points. It is a no-lose one, although we are getting down to the bare bones and must be starting to think of the summer hols. I know I am.