BURTON Albion’s interest in the League Two automatic promotion race effectively ended yesterday as they drew 1-1 at Newport County.
The Brewers can now no longer reach the top three unless there is a massive – and highly unlikely – swing in goal difference between themselves and Rochdale and Chesterfield.
But despite missing out on the top three, there is the considerable consolation of a play-off place, which was sealed yesterday after Oxford lost at Scunthorpe.
Albion gave themselves another mountain to climb away from home as Dean Lyness somehow allowed Andy Sandell’s speculative long-ranger in after just five minutes, but Michael Symes levelled from the spot before the break after a foul on Dominic Knowles.
Newport, who were overly physical at times, threw everything at the Brewers after half-time, hitting the woodwork and spurning several excellent chances.
However, Albion rode out the storm and almost found a winner themselves as they improved late on following a couple of substitutions.
But it was not to be and now it is the play-offs for Gary Rowett’s men – a fantastic achievement for the second season running.
The manager made six changes to freshen things up at Rodney Parade.
The only enforced changes were Marcus Holness replacing Shane Cansdell-Sherriff at centre-half after the Australian tweaked his Achilles against Hartlepool, and Matty Palmer replacing Robbie Weir in central midfield after the latter’s wife went into labour.
David Gray replaced Phil Edwards at right-back and Ashley Hemmings came in for MacDonald on the right wing for his first start since arriving on loan from Walsall.
The other two changes saw Billy Kee and Gary Alexander drop to the bench, with Symes and Knowles paired up front.
It was Symes’ first start since the end of September after groin and knee problems.
For the Exiles, there was no Rene Howe, with the former Brewers striker missing out with a knee injury.
Albion made the worst possible start as they conceded after just five minutes – and it was an entirely avoidable goal.
Sandell outmuscled Hemmings near halfway and took the ball on before hammering a shot from fully 35 yards.
There looked little danger, but Lyness was too far to the left of his goal and despite scrambling across his line was well beaten at his right post.
Chris Zebroski fired high and wide on 11 minutes after pulling a high ball down near the corner of the box.
The Newport front-runner was then denied from close range by brave blocks from Holness and Lee Bell.
Hemmings played in Gray on the overlap and the full-back’s low cross was fired over by Symes from 12 yards on his less favoured right foot.
Two minutes later a corner from Palmer caused chaos in the Exiles area, with Holness’ ball back across hacked away.
Just past the half-hour, Darcy Blake did well to block Knowles’ shot at an open goal after keeper Lenny Pidgeley spilled a Callum McFadzean cross.
The Brewers finally got the goal they had been threatening on 36 minutes.
Bell was fouled near halfway and Ian Sharps finessed a ball into the area for Symes to flick on.
It dropped for Knowles with his back to goal and – under pressure from Blake – the young striker slipped, with referee Brendan Malone having no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
Symes kept his cool, sending Pidgeley the wrong way with a neat finish into the bottom right corner.
Newport appealed for a penalty of their own two minutes from the break as Minshull went down under pressure from Sharps, but nothing was given.
Two minutes after the break, Zebroski was inches away from restoring Newport’s lead, but his driven shot from 16 yards on an angle flew just wide.
Palmer then pulled off a brilliant last-ditch tackle to deny Lee Minshull as he surged into the area onto a ball from Christian Jolley.
Kevin Feely then hit the outside of the post from a Robbie Wilmott cross.
On 53 minutes, Wilmott’s effort from Jolley’s cross was deflected up onto the top of the bar and out for a corner.
Teenager Marcus Harness had a shot blocked with his first touch after coming on, just seconds after MacDonald had thumped a 20-yarder off the outside of Pidgeley’s right post.
Burton seemed to have drawn the sting out of Newport and Palmer should have done better on 77 minutes when he dispossessed Adam Chapman, but instead of teeing up MacDonald he went himself and blazed high and wide from 18 yards.
Wilmott fired straight at Lyness with seven minutes left in what became an end-to-end finish.
Shaun Jeffers should have won it but he headed Chapman’s cross straight at Lyness from six yards.
Jeffers then went down under a McFadzean challenge in the area but Malone was again less than impressed.
Jimmy Phillips was carried off with what looked a painful knee injury in stoppage time and Albion were down to 10 men.
The treatment he got from the home fans was nothing short of disgraceful as Edwards and Alexander carried him to the dressing rooms.
Sandell then nearly won it with a far post header from Chapman’s corner but Lyness reacted quickly to block it.
Sharps then almost nicked it in the dying seconds as he chased Kee’s knockdown, but it was whisked off his toe in a crowded area.