BURTON Albion again showed their love of the big games with a stirring performance to beat Oxford United 2-1 and fire themselves right into contention for the top three.
The Brewers took three points at the Kassam Stadium with a brave and committed performance against one of their rivals for automatic promotion from League Two.
And boss Gary Rowett, whose side have also beaten Chesterfield and Fleetwood away from home, was delighted at what he saw.
“We’ve been very good in the big games,” he said after Saturday’s battling victory. “I think we’re going all right.
“I made a comment that this wasn’t a must-win game. That wasn’t a lack of ambition – we work on an even keel and we don’t get stupidly excited if we win a game and likewise if we lose a game.
“What you saw today wasn’t a side that didn’t think it was a must-win – we played with everything we had.”
Goals from Dominic Knowles and Zeli Ismail fired Albion into a 2-0 lead before Billy Kee missed a penalty to kill the game off at 3-0 on 26 minutes.
Oxford’s Ryan Williams netted just after half-time as the hosts threw the kitchen sink at Albion, who held firm and rode their luck to take the win.
“The key moment in the game was the penalty to go 3-0 up,” said Rowett. “I think the game would have been dead and buried at that point.
“For half an hour that’s as well as we’ve played. We played with fantastic control and I thought our attacking intent was very, very good.
“We had the positions and opportunities to be 3-0 or 4-0 up.
“When you don’t score that penalty, you know what might come and we spoke about starting really well second half.
“I thought we looked tired, actually.
“It sounds stupid but I thought we looked really leggy and tired.
“We’ve had a lot of training, a lot of games and a lot of travelling.
“I think when the goal went in at 2-1, I said to (assistant boss) Kev (Summerfield) this was probably going to be longest half we’ve had.
“And it was. We had to ride our luck a little bit and take one or two players out of the firing line.
“I think Damo (McCrory) in the end had a dead leg and played on, Shane (Cansdell-Sherriff) was struggling a little bit with a tight hamstring and played on. Jimmy (Phillips) looked like he was struggling but played on.
“We showed the character we’ve got and you’ve got to say coming to a place like Oxford and to be so dominant in the first 30 minutes and effectively win the game in that period was fantastic.”
Rowett wished his men could have taken full advantage of their early superiority but was delighted with the resolve they again displayed.
“That’s been a big point of our season,” he said. “We’ve never managed to quite kill games off and we haven’t quite managed to take advantage of our good positions.
“But we’ve been resolute, we’ve been tough and we’ve been a hard team to play against.
“It was another big performance.
“Oxford have won three on the spin, so you’re coming to a team who are in really, really good form in terms of their home games and I felt as though we silenced the crowd early on and silenced their vigour and enthusiasm.
“At one stage I felt if we could just go that extra bit, the game would’ve been well out of sight.
“I think the big moment was with Billy and I feel sorry for him in there, but games change like that and you have to have the mental toughness to stay in the game and see it out.”
Ian Sharps limped off with a calf injury and is set to miss tomorrow night’s trip to Portsmouth.
Marcus Holness replaced him on Saturday - his first appearance since the 3-1 defeat at Wimbledon on September 21 - and is set to start at Pompey.
“Bob’s (Holness) been really frustrated and you can see that in training,” said the manager.
“But what I would say is he’s done all the right things. He’s worked very hard and his attitude in training has been spot-on. You see the value of that now.
“Now he’s going to play on Tuesday night, undoubtedly, and it’s for him to come in and give his little bit.
“That’s what we’ve said to them all. You’re not all going to start. There’ll be times when Alex MacDonald starts games and get his opportunity.
“I thought Matty (Palmer) looked a little bit tired today, so there’ll be chances for Lee Bell.
“We’re a squad and we’re going to win or not win as a group.”
Rob Lainton played the last game of his month-long loan spell from Bury, and Rowett is confident of extending the goalkeeper’s loan to the full 93 days.
However, the 24-year-old would potentially miss the play-offs as his loan would expire on Sunday, May 11.
The play-off semi-finals will take place between May 8 and 17, with the final on May 26.
“We spoke about extending it and I can’t see a problem,” said Rowett. “He’s not been in Bury’s plans so we’ll extend it.
“The only downside is it’s a 93-day emergency loan and it’s not quite going to get us all the way through.
“Deano will be ready.
“We’re pleased with Rob so far.”