BURTON Albion went nearly 60 games without a 0-0 draw – they have now recorded back-to-back league shutouts in their last two away games.
Like the New Year’s Day stalemate at Mansfield Town, there was a sense of what might have been against a struggling Bury side at Gigg Lane on Saturday, but in the end Albion were battling to ensure a point that keeps them in the League Two automatic promotion spots.
It extends their unbeaten run in that competition to 10 games, and they have not tasted defeat in more than two months now.
Given that in that time the Brewers have played 14 games in all competitions, with largely the same players, it is not a record to be sniffed at.
On Saturday, it seemed more the exertions of the previous Tuesday night – when the Brewers were beaten 4-1 in the rain and wind at Bournemouth – that caught up with them.
A lively first 45 minutes from the visitors was matched by a more concerted effort from Bury after the break, and a flagging Albion side ended up having to defend valiantly to earn the draw.
The 319 fans who made the trip up the M6 did not have to look far for positives though – principal among them the full debut of loan signing Zeli Ismail.
Ismail built on his eye-catching cameo against Cheltenham Town last week with 65 minutes of positive running, shooting and crossing.
The on-loan Wolverhampton Wanderers winger has added something that has been missing from Burton’s right flank for some time now, and with Jimmy Phillips currently in mesmerising form on the other side, the Brewers are now dangerous when they can work the ball wide.
There was also the small matter of a clean sheet, and a man-of-the-match performance from the returning Zander Diamond.
It was the defender’s third successive game since replacing Shane Cansdell-Sherriff at the heart of Albion’s back-line, and after standing strong during tough tests against Cheltenham and Bournemouth, he recorded his first league shutout of the season with an imperious display.
There were no surprises in Gary Rowett’s line-up, with Ismail the only new face from the XI which started the 2-1 win over Cheltenham a week ago.
The young winger made his full debut in place of Alex MacDonald after coming on against the Robins and setting up two goals.
Adam Buxton and Lee Bell, dragooned into the side for the FA Cup exit at Bournemouth, returned to the substitutes’ bench, with Robbie Weir back in central midfield.
The game did not really come to life until the 15th minute – before that, both sides had played attractively, but without creating chances.
Ismail was a lively outlet throughout the first half, and he had Albion’s first shot, but blazed over the bar from out wide.
In the 17th minute, a corner from the right was headed goalwards by Billy Kee.
Brian Jensen – who had a brief trial with Albion in the summer – saved, with Kee then firing narrowly wide after the Shakers failed to clear the ball.
The near miss sparked a flurry of chances, with Adam McGurk next to try his luck, cutting inside and seeing his rising shot saved by Jensen.
At the other end, a Craig Jones cross reached Anton Forrester at the back post, who beat Phil Edwards and fired straight at Dean Lyness.
But generally Albion were dominant, with Jimmy Phillips seeing his shot gathered at the second attempt.
Ismail drove just over before beating three defenders to get to the byline, and his cut-back rolled across the face of goal, with no-one able to get the decisive touch.
After Burton failed to track Ashley Grimes’ run, the midfielder found himself one-on-one with Lyness, but fired straight at the keeper, and Edwards hooked a shot over the bar from McGurk’s free-kick.
McGurk fired wide and Phillips’ shot was deflected behind towards the end of the half.
On a number of occasions this season, the Brewers have created plenty with nothing to show for it, only to grab a late winner – and it was hoped they would not live to regret their first-half profligacy.
And indeed, they started the second half with no signs of their earlier endeavours letting up, and Phillips curled a shot into Jensen’s arms following a nice passing move that involved most of the team.
Matty Palmer rolled a weak shot well wide of goal and Kee wasted a great chance as – after being set up by Phillips – he failed to get his shot away first time, and the chance was then blocked yards out.
However, these were rare chances for Burton in a second half which belonged mainly to the hosts, and Forrester got between Diamond and Ian Sharps but fired his shot well over.
Temitope Obadeyi cut inside and blazed over. Before that Weir’s poor pass let in Bury skipper Jones, who dribbled down the right before landing a shot on the roof of the net.
After Edwards shot over following a lun-busting run, before two substitutes combined as Chris Hussey’s cross was nodded on to Dominic Knowles, but he could not get his header on target.
Those substitutes had replaced Ismail and Kee, and along with the later withdrawal of McGurk seemed to be designed to take the weight off some heavy legs.
Albion had also switched to a 4-5-1 after finding themselves often over-run by Bury’s own five-man midfield.
However, Jones was still allowed another run on goal as neither Damien McCrory nor Phillips could halt his progress, and Lyness had to save smartly at his near post.
Shakers substitute Temitope Obadeyi cut inside but blazed over, before the home side were blessed with arguably the best chance of the game in the dying minutes.
Danny Nardiello breezed through the Albion ranks like a knife through butter, and after evading Hussey’s desperate lunge, was poised to fire home the winner until Diamond threw his body on the line, preventing a goal and picking up a knock in the process.
However, he recovered to see the game out and ensure that the 0-0 draw – never seen in 2013 – is becoming a more regular occurrence in 2014.