BATTLING Burton Albion kept their automatic promotion dream alive with a nerve-shredding 1-0 win over Plymouth Argyle at the Pirelli Stadium.
Callum McFadzean’s first-half goal was enough to see off the physical Pilgrims as the Brewers dug deep and kept a 17th clean sheet of the season.
It had looked like being a more comfortable afternoon for Albion as they set about their visitors in and exciting first half.
Jimmy Phillips rattled a post and Damien McCrory clipped the bar either side of McFadzean’s goal but again Burton failed to fully capitalise on their dominance.
Plymouth then rallied and threw the kitchen sink at the hosts but the defence, expertly led by Ian Sharps, stood up to the challenge and made sure Plymouth were restricted to half chances.
With Chesterfield only drawing, the gap on League Two’s top three is down to three points.
All Gary Rowett’s men can now do is keep winning – and 1-0 will do.
It was almost predictable that Saturday’s encounter would end with that scoreline.
Burton have now won 1-0 11 times in the league this season.
While it may not be pretty – the gate of 2,962 was more than 1,000 down on the corresponding fixture a year ago, also won 1-0 – it is certainly effective.
Albion have now got the joint best defensive record in the division with just 37 goals conceded in their 41 fixtures.
With five matches to go, including one against Chesterfield, the season is poised on a knife’s edge, just like last season.
But unlike 2012/13, the Brewers are unlikely to concede 14 goals in their last five games, goals which ultimately cost them third spot.
If they get there this time around, it will be have been down to performances like Saturday’s – more dogged and determined than dashing and dramatic.
Rowett made two changes to his side from the 0-0 draw at York a week previously.
Gary Alexander replaced Adam McGurk up front after he suffered a thigh injury in the warm-up at York which worsened during the week.
Phillips came in for Phil Edwards, who had suffered with flu in the week.
The other flu sufferers had mixed fortunes – with Billy Kee fit enough to start but Marcus Holness at home recuperating.
The changes meant a rejig, with David Gray moving from right midfield to his preferred position at right-back and McFadzean moving from the left to the right flank to allow Phillips in on the left.
Ashley Hemmings was on the bench, as was Michael Symes, now recovered from the groin and knee problems which have dogged his season.
Robbie Weir, too, was a substitute as Lee Bell and Matty Palmer continued their partnership in central midfield.
Albion were almost caught out early on as a long all over the top got to Plymouth’s dangerous Reuben Reid, but Gray – who had an excellent game – did well to read the danger and cover.
Maxime Blanchard then blocked Kee as he looked to get on the end of Alexander’s clever dummy of Gray’s pass.
Enoch Showunmi, a former Nigerian international, then headed Durrell Berry’s cross over in another warning for Burton.
The ex-Leeds United striker was a handful all afternoon but Sharps and Gray did well to keep the man mountain under control.
On 18 minutes, Albion were unlucky not to take the lead.
Phillips got the ball and created a yard of space for himself near the corner of the box. His fierce shot caught a Plymouth leg and crashed back off the inside of Jake Cole’s left post with the keeper beaten.
Soon after, Alexander volleyed wide from a corner and Shane Cansdell-Sherriff just failed to get enough on a clever Palmer free kick.
It was all Brewers – and they got reward for their pressure on 26 minutes.
Palmer, pressing high up the pitch, caught Neal Trotman in possession just outside the area and had a shot, which Cole saved.
The ball dropped to Kee, who teed up the charging McFadzean, and the on-loan Sheffield United man did the rest, finishing low through an exposed Cole’s legs from 10 yards.
Argyle tried to hit back but Gray was again alert to clear from Showunmi as he looked to get in on another Berry cross.
Just after the half hour, McCrory – a lovely striker of the ball – crashed a free kick from 28 yards which Cole did well to touch onto the top of his bar.
The game went quiet in the run-up to half-time, but Kee almost brought it to life in stoppage time as he hit a powerful shot from 30 yards which Cole parried away.
Plymouth boss John Sheridan hauled Trotman off at half-time and threw veteran Paul Wotton on.
Recently, Albion have looked a different team after the break and it happened again.
They began defending deeper and bringing pressure on themselves.
Some credit, though, has to be given to the Pilgrims, who are a big, physical side.
Two minutes after the restart, Reid – a similar player to departed Brewers striker Rene Howe, only with a superior work rate – surged into the box past McCrory but his powerful shot was deflected away by Gray.
On 54 minutes, Conor Hourihane had a shot from 18 yards blocked by Rob Lainton, with McCrory clearing away from the lurking Reid.
Argyle looked dangerous but Burton stood up to the challenge.
Alex MacDonald came on for Kee up front as he understandably tired and Symes was also brought on for his first appearance since the 2-0 defeat at Dagenham on November 16.
Hourihane wasted Plymouth’s best chance of the match as he fired ex-Albion forward Andres Gurrieri’s cross straight at Lainton from 10 yards under no pressure.
Phillips then dribbled a volley just wide from the edge of the box after good work from Symes.
The big striker should have netted with five minutes left but snatched at a volley after Phillips’ shot was pushed out. He can be forgiven for a bit of rustiness.
The expected big charge from Argyle came late on as substitute Marvin Morgan, Reid and Showunmi all threw their weight about.
But Albion defended manfully and did not budge an inch through five minutes of increasingly tense added time which frayed the nerves of the faithful.
They got there, though, with a palpable sense of relief descending on the Pirelli.
While reaching the top three looks a tall order, one thing is for sure – this side will never throw the towel in.