TEN-man Burton Albion drew first blood in their play-off semi-final with Southend United as they won 1-0 at the Pirelli Stadium.
Adam McGurk’s excellent finish just before half-time gives the Brewers a slender advantage going into the second leg at Roots Hall on Saturday.
But they will have to play the away leg – and a possible Wembley final – without player-of-the-year Ian Sharps after the big centre-half was sent off yesterday.
The 33-year-old can count himself very unlucky to pick up two yellow cards in the space of two second-half minutes.
His first caution, for deliberate handball, came after the ball seemed to strike his chest.
The second, for a trip on Ryan Leonard, looked more clear-cut and referee Oliver Langford had given himself no room for manoeuvre, so off went Sharps.
To make the decision look even worse, visiting skipper John White had earlier escaped a yellow for a scything lunge on Callum McFadzean. He later picked up a booking for a tasty tackle from behind that left Robbie Weir needing treatment.
So for Sharps to be sent off for, in comparison, two minor infringements smacked of the utterly ludicrous.
Once he was gone, Albion had to dig deep into their reserve of resolve, but again came up with the goods, holding on under heavy pressure to retain their one-goal advantage.
They finished the game with a back four, from right to left, of David Gray, Phil Edwards, Marcus Holness and Chris Hussey.
Few would have believed that could be the defence just a few weeks ago, with Burton’s success this season founded on a back four of Edwards at right-back, Sharps and Shane Cansdell-Sherriff in the middle and Damien McCrory at left-back.
Injuries have robbed boss Gary Rowett of Cansdell-Sherriff and McCrory, and now with Sharps banned, it is yet another hurdle for Albion to jump.
With 6ft 3in Barry Corr likely to be waiting at Roots Hall, it will be a tough task for whoever replaces Sharps in the centre and has to mark the target man.
But that is a worry for another day and, for now, the Brewers have edged in front.
It was the first time they have beaten Southend this season after 1-0 defeats in the clubs’ two league meetings.
The Shrimpers are a quality outfit, so it is not a result to be sniffed at – especially with 10 men having to hold on in the final third of the match.
It was also an exciting game and, even for a play-off semi-final, fairly dramatic.
Sadly, a fault with the tannoy system meant a lot of the crowd had filtered away by the time Albion’s players emerged from the dressing rooms at full-time to show their appreciation to the fans.
They will probably not be so rapidly out of Roots Hall next week if the Brewers have done enough to reach Wembley.
Rowett made five changes yesterday to the side which lost 1-0 at Southend eight days previously in the final league match of the campaign.
In came the rested Sharps and Billy Kee, while McFadzean and Zeli Ismail stepped up from the bench. It was Ismail’s first start since tearing his hamstring in the 1-1 draw with Wimbledon in March.
There was also a return to the side for McGurk after he missed the last four games with a groin injury.
The Shrimpers, meanwhile, were unchanged, with even the same matchday squad as at Roots Hall.
Albion started brightly, with McGurk having a couple of half-chances in the opening minutes before Ismail turned Ben Coker inside and out before firing in a cross which a panicked John Egan headed out for a corner.
A poor clearance from Jakub Sokolik then went straight to McGurk on seven minutes but his snatched shot from the edge of the area went wide.
Southend began to settle and Kevan Hurst, the best player on the pitch on the day, found Will Atkinson in the box. The midfielder beat Sharps but Dean Lyness was out rapidly to block his cross-shot from a tight angle.
On 10 minutes, good pressure from the visitors saw Edwards fail to clear from near the byline and a cross from Hurst was headed wide by Corr.
The Brewers tried to hit back and an excellent cross from Hussey found Ismail beyond the far post, but his volley was blocked by Coker, who soon picked up a yellow card for a niggly foul on the winger.
Lee Bell then robbed Leonard on the edge of the Southend box, but had to hit his shot off balance and the ball flew over.
Phil Brown’s men recovered from their early wobble and Hurst headed straight at Lyness from a pinpoint Jacob Murphy cross on 21 minutes.
Corr then got his free kick all wrong, sailing the ball harmlessly over from 22 yards after Sharps was penalised for a trip on Atkinson.
Lyness pulled off a cracking save just before the half-hour, diving to his right and catching an Atkinson shot from Corr’s knock-down.
The visitors were well on top but on 38 minutes McGurk turned Leonard at the edge of the area and fired a low shot which Daniel Bentley did well to get down to and turn around his right hand post.
With the break looming, McGurk grabbed the only goal of the game.
He took a long ball from the back and laid it back to McFadzean in the outside left position. He in turn got the ball to Kee, whose pass was deflected off Sokolik into McGurk’s path in the area.
The striker made no mistake from 10 yards, lifting a brilliant finish over Bentley and into the net.
The showers which had peppered the Pirelli finally turned into a full-on storm just after half-time and by 50 minutes the rain was hammering down.
Albion had been forced to reorganise, with Ismail’s hamstring too sore to continue. Matty Palmer replaced the on-loan Wolves man on the right of midfield.
After the deluge eased, the game exploded as Sharps picked up two yellow cards on 57 and 59 minutes respectively. It was harsh on a player who has been mostly impeccable this season.
Rowett responded by pulling off the unlucky Kee and putting Gray on at right-back, with Edwards moving into the centre.
Southend also reacted, taking off right-back White and bringing on Freddy Eastwood to bolster the attack.
Anthony Straker also made an appearance for the visitors as the game descended into a fractious affair.
Straker fired a cross-shot across the face of goal before Corr picked up a yellow for a series of little fouls.
Albion successfully ran the clock down but the Shrimpers ramped the pressure up a notch in the last 10 minutes.
Edwards pulled off a brave header to clear Hurst’s cross on 86 minutes, while Lee Barnard’s header was easy for Lyness seconds later.
The Brewers No1 pulled off an even better stop soon after, stopping Leonard’s powerful effort from close range.
Albion held on with all they had through six minutes of stoppage time, with McFadzean tackling Sokolik cleanly in the area and Lyness holding a dangerous low Leonard cross with Straker and Eastwood lurking.
Leonard’s header in the dying seconds went straight at Lyness before the whistle blew.
The sides can now draw breath before another meeting which will decide who goes to Wembley on May 26.
Albion have their 1-0 lead, but Southend know there will be no Sharps on Saturday: it is a perfectly poised tie, the outcome of which is almost impossible to call.