BURTON Albion’s unbeaten run in League Two was not going to last forever – but for it to end in the manner it did on Saturday was both frustrating and infuriating.
The Brewers could accept defeat if Oxford United had come to the Pirelli Stadium and played them off the park, or if they had concocted an intelligent plan to nick the points.
But when a clearly one-sided piece of refereeing was largely responsible for the defeat, it is hard to swallow for Albion.
There had been little between the sides before the match exploded into life on 34 minutes – and referee Michael Bull irrevocably changed it.
Ian Sharps and Dave Kitson had challenged for a ball just inside the Burton half.
Sharps was sent flying by the former Reading and Stoke City striker and kicked out at him as he hit the ground.
Kitson reacted furiously, pushing Sharps back to the floor as the big defender got up.
It was nothing more than handbags at dawn – but Mr Bull waded in and produced a red card in a ruck of arguing players.
It soon became apparent, as he trudged off, that it was Sharps who had been dismissed.
Kitson then escaped with a yellow, despite raising his hands to an opponent. That is a red card in the rulebook.
A far more sensible course of action, though – which would have saved the ruination of League Two’s match of the day – would have been a yellow each.
Sharps’ kick did not connect and Kitson’s retaliation was pretty pathetic. Neither deserved to be sent off.
But Sharps was, and with Alfie Potter scoring just after the break and Danny Rose five minutes from the end, Albion’s unbeaten run came to an end six games into the season.
It is hardly a disaster for the Brewers, but to lose your unbeaten status in such unjust circumstances is difficult to accept.
As for Sharps, a mild mannered character and certainly not a dirty player, what caused him to react to Kitson’s initial challenge is unclear – but there must have been something not seen from the sidelines.
Still, he faces a three-match ban and the only silver lining to the cloud is the imminent return to fitness of Zander Diamond and a reliable performance at the back from substitute Phil Edwards, with the duo competing for a starting spot against Portsmouth next week.
Against Oxford, Brewers boss Gary Rowett brought back the five players he rested for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy game at Notts County, naming the side which beat Accrington Stanley 1-0 the previous Saturday.
Zander Diamond (foot), Alex MacDonald (calf) and Billy Kee (thigh) were still out.
Oxford were missing Sean Rigg (torn hamstring), with Deane Smalley (hamstring) only fit enough for the bench.
The game was even in the opening stages, with Asa Hall driving wide from the edge of the box on seven minutes before Sharps’ flick from a Rory Delap long throw almost getting to Rene Howe in a crowded box.
Albion began to dominate possession as half-time approached before the Sharps and Kitson incident changed the game.
With Sharps off, Edwards came on for the unfortunate Michael Symes as the Brewers reached the break at 0-0.
It took just four minutes after the break for the U’s to take the lead – and it was a poor goal Albion conceded.
There seemed little danger when Potter got the ball down the right, but he beat Damien McCrory to get into the box and then got a yard of space to the side of Lee Bell before firing a shot across Dean Lyness and into the bottom corner.
The ball seemed to get a deflection as it went past the Brewers keeper, but the dangerous Potter should have been stopped earlier.
Tom Newey then hit a stunning volley after an Oxford corner, with Lyness flying to his left to touch the ball over.
Burton tried to regroup – but on 56 minutes it looked they would go down to nine men.
Howe, who was booked after a nothing tackle on Jake Wright in first-half injury time, went in for a challenge with Andrew Whing and Hunt.
Disappointingly, Whing tried to get the Albion striker sent off, claiming Howe had kicked Hunt.
Thankfully Mr Bull saw sense on this occasion.
After James Constable, largely ineffective for Oxford against some determined defending from Edwards and Marcus Holness, had limped off, Rowett brought Jimmy Phillips and Matty Palmer on for Bell and Howe.
As Burton chased the game they were hit by a sucker punch and went 2-0 down with five minutes left.
Ryan Williams, on for Kitson, outpaced Palmer down the right wing and hit a low cross.
Delap did his best to clear but Rose pounced to tap past Lyness from close range.
There was still time for Phillips to go close from the edge of the box but the game – and the unbeaten run – were up for Albion, with McCrory’s fierce but inaccurate shot in injury time summing up their frustration.