CALVIN Zola spared Burton Albion’s blushes with a last-gasp equaliser at the Pirelli Stadium to keep alive their FA Cup hopes..
The Brewers looked to be heading for a humbling exit at the first hurdle against former Conference foes Altrincham when Damien McCrory became the second home defender to score an own goal in the 86th minute of an incident-packed encounter.
But Zola rode to the rescue in the third minute of added time when he headed in his seventh goal of the season to keep alive Albion’s hopes of a second round tie away to Crewe Alexandra.
It was the thrilling climax to a enthralling cup tie that had a bit of everything — including the two Albion own goals and a missed penalty for each side.
And it was the Brewers who were left to count their lucky stars after being given a football lesson for much of the game by part-time opponents 52 places below them on the football ladder.
Alty came, saw and almost conquered with a brand of smart, passing football that often had Gary Rowett’s side in a spin.
But it was Albion’s spirit if not their craft that shone through in a compelling second half to spare them a quick exit from the competition for the second year running.
Winger Jordan Chapell, Albion’s loan signing from Sheffield United, was given his full debut in the only change to the side that beat Bradford City in League Two.
Cleveland Taylor dropped to the bench, where he was joined by defender Marcus Holness and midfielder Chris Palmer after their lengthy injury lay-offs.
The visitors had the first shooting opportunity but Mark Oxley was able to watch a tame effort from James Lawrie roll wide of his right post.
Oxley, making his second appearance on loan from Hull City, was quickly involved again in villain-to-hero scenario.
The keeper upended Simon Richman after the Brewers had been cut open with alarming ease by simple passes between Carl Rodgers and Jake Moult, and referee Michael Bull had no hesitation in awarding a penalty.
Alty’s 19-goal top scorer Damian Reeves could not have struck the spot kick better, but Oxley redeemed himself with brilliant one-handed save.
That was not the end of Albion’s early troubles as the visitors came out with all guns blazing but Nicky Clee’s cross from the left ran through the area without finding a team-mate.
Reeves then set up a shooting opportunity that was ballooned over the crossbar by Lawrie.
Albion looked as though they had lead in their boots as Alty continued their impressive start to carve out another opening in the 15th minute.
The dangerous Clee was again the provider but this time Lawrie got too much angle on a 15-yard shot and saw it sail wide.
Albion finally came to life in the 21st minute when Alty defender Danny Hall lost his footing to allow Billy Kee to get in a low shot that was tipped round a post by veteran keeper Stuart Coburn.
Skipper Zander Diamond rose well to meet Lee Bell’s subsequent corner kick but unusually failed to hit the target with his header.
Alty quickly found their attacking feet again, but Clee could not get enough curl on a 20-yarder.
However, the winger had a major part to play as the visitors took a deserved lead in the 29th minute.
He weaved between two opponents as he cut in from the right and his low cross was rammed home from close range by Rodgers.
Coburn handed the Brewers the chance of a quick equaliser when he failed to hold a Kee shot, but Robbie Weir fired over a gaping net from the edge of the area.
Albion’s dire form was summed up by Alty’s second goal in the 34th minute.
Clee’s corner sailed over to the far post when Stanton could only stab the ball into his own net despite McCrory’s desperate attempt to rescue his colleague.
It could have been worse for the Brewers when Alty sliced through their flimsy defence again in the 44th minute but Oxley kept out Reeves’ low shot from 10 yards.
Albion had to wait until added time to put the visitors under any sort of pressure.
Coburn had to dive full length to push away a Maghoma shot and then Diamond had a header blocked on the line.
Weir went close to reducing the deficit six minutes after the break with a fizzing right-foot volley from the edge of the area.
The goal Albion desperately needed to revive their spirits arrived two minutes later when Diamond burst onto a Bell free-kick to sidefoot home from close range.
The goal gave Albion a surge of adrenaline and Chapell had a shot tipped over by Coburn before rattling another effort inches wide.
Weir squandered his chance to put the Brewers level in the 64th minute when he blazed over from the penalty spot after the referee ruled Moult had used a hand to guide a McCrory cross back to his keeper.
Albion sent on Matt Paterson in place of Kee in an attempt to turn the screw but could have found themselves two goals adrift again in the 73rd minute.
The visitors produced a terrific first-time passing move, but Moult’s shot rattled the crossbar — and may have crept over the line — before Reeves headed the rebound too high.
However, the Brewers clawed their way level from another set piece in the 76th minute.
This time Bell slung in a free kick from the left and it was Maghoma who took the plaudits for bundling the ball over the line, though it was initially Diamond who was awarded the goal.
It looked as though the Brewers would finally grind down the visitors, only for the tie to take another unexpected twist when McCrory, under no real pressure sliced substitute Duncan Watmore’s cross into his own net in the 85th minute.
Alty looked as though they had been gifted the victory they probably deserved, but it was Zola who had the final say when he powered home Chapell’s cross right at the death.