BURTON Albion completed their regular League Two season with a 1-0 defeat at Southend to set up a meeting with the Essex side in the play-offs.
The Brewers – with key men Ian Sharps and Billy Kee rested – were beaten by Barry Corr’s first-half strike at Roots Hall on Saturday.
With York drawing 2-2 at promoted Scunthorpe, Albion ended the season in sixth spot and will begin their play-off campaign at home to the Shrimpers on Sunday.
It will be a far different team to the one which started at the weekend.
Boss Gary Rowett used the game to give young winger Marcus Harness a first start for the club and set up in a 4-5-1 formation.
It was a day for experimentation, with the result having little meaning – especially with Rowett happy to play any of the other three teams already assured of play-off places.
With a play-off semi-final against Southend looking likely at kick-off, the manager was keen to not give too much away and managed that, while Shrimpers boss Phil Brown named an unchanged, and full-strength, side.
It is hard to judge too much from the game, though.
Albion were far from great, but with nothing really at stake and two massive games just days away, it is hardly surprising.
That said, Southend were less than terrifying as they completed the double over the Brewers with a second 1-0 win of the campaign.
Corr is certainly a handful, while their back four looks very solid.
But with Sharps and Kee back in and, hopefully, Adam McGurk fit, it should be an intriguing two-legged cup tie with the Wembley prize at stake.
Rowett made five changes on Saturday with the play-offs in mind following last week’s 2-0 defeat to Chesterfield.
As well as the absent Sharps and Kee, Callum McFadzean, Alex MacDonald and Gary Alexander dropped out of the starting XI.
In came David Gray, Chris Hussey – for his first Burton start since February following a loan spell at Bury – Ashley Hemmings, Harness and Michael Symes.
Phil Edwards moved to centre-half in place of Sharps, allowing Gray in at right-back.
In bright sunshine there was a measured start to the match by both sides.
Corr, a rumoured target for Albion last summer, flashed a header across goal on 11 minutes after a long throw from the right by Ryan Leonard.
Two minutes later a Matty Palmer free kick after a foul on Hussey found Hemmings in the area but his looping header was easily gathered by Dan Bentley.
On 21 minutes, Robbie Weir and Symes combined well on the edge of the box but the big striker’s shot was blocked.
Seconds later Corr grabbed the only goal of the game.
Kevan Hurst got free and crossed from the left for the target man to nod home under too little pressure at the back post, with Dean Lyness just getting his hand on the ball as it went in.
On 25 minutes, on-loan Sunderland man John Egan had a pop from 25 yards but his shot flew harmlessly wide of Lyness’ right upright.
Albion then had a chance as Hussey’s excellent free kick curled into the back post for Symes to nod down for Weir. But the midfielder skied his shot from 15 yards.
An already quiet game went flat in the run-up to half-time, with Will Atkinson missing the target for the Shrimpers and Edwards finding Weir with a terrific through ball, only for the hard-working midfielder’s shot to be blocked by Egan.
After the break, Southend had the first shot on goal as Leonard lined one up from 20 yards but hit his effort straight at Lyness.
The shot came seconds after Harness showed great attitude in tracking back 60 yards to dispossess pacy on-loan Norwich man Jacob Murphy.
Southend captain John White then hit a low left-footed shot which was easy pickings for Lyness.
Rowett brought Zeli Ismail and Dom Knowles on for Harness and Symes just before the hour and the duo brought some good pace and mobility to the Brewers.
On 71 minutes, Hussey knocked a corner short to Palmer and, unchecked, he ran along the byline before pulling the ball back to Ismail, who could only fire his shot over.
Hussey, probably Burton’s best player on the day, fired a free kick from 25 yards just over on 81 minutes before Alex MacDonald, on for Bell, tried his luck from fully 45 yards but sent his free kick over.
In a brighter finish to the match, Knowles’ header was blocked by defender Jakub Sokolik – on loan from Liverpool – and the Brewers enjoyed a little pressure.
Now let’s see how they get on against Southend across two cup ties.