IAN Sharps struck his first goal in Burton Albion colours to beat Northampton Town 1-0 and lift the Brewers up to fourth in the League Two table.
The 33-year-old defender headed home a real captain’s goal with five minutes left at the Pirelli Stadium yesterday to finally end the resistance of the Football League’s basement club.
Albion had dominated the Boxing Day encounter but missed several excellent chances to seal the win before Sharps thundered a header from Alex MacDonald’s corner past ex-Brewers keeper Matt Duke.
The victory – Burton’s eighth 1-0 win of the season – means they are now unbeaten in eight in all competitions and have also recorded an impressive 11 clean sheets.
They are level on points with second-placed Oxford going into Sunday’s home clash with Newport County and are building excellent momentum going into the New Year.
Manager Gary Rowett has called on his side to take more care getting balls into the box, and they certainly did that as they recorded 20 efforts on goal.
With some tidier finishing, the margin of victory against the managerless Cobblers would have been greater.
But such is their defensive solidity, one goal was always likely to do it – and on his 43rd appearance Sharps was the deserving hero.
Rowett named an unchanged side from the 1-1 draw at Hartlepool on Saturday after Damien McCrory passed a late fitness test on the hamstring injury he suffered in the match.
Neither side really made a flying start but the Brewers broke well on eight minutes and Billy Kee found Chris Hussey with a smashing ball on the right. His cross was blocked as Adam McGurk looked to get on the end of it.
Ten minutes later, Hussey found Kee with a long ball into the area but Duke collected the Albion striker’s header.
Jimmy Phillips, who was outstanding and confident in possession, then forced Duke into an excellent save as half-time approached.
The winger is hardly known for his aerial ability but he thundered one at goal from Matty Palmer’s accurate centre from about 12 yards out. It looked like the ball would tear into the back of the net but Duke used all of his 6ft 5in to get up and tip over.
Northampton had their first shot at goal before the break but a 30-yarder from Izale McLeod, who had spent much of the first half in a running battle with Phil Edwards, went well over.
It had been a solid enough showing from Albion in the opening 45 minutes, but they really stepped it up after the break and went for the jugular with a performance brimming with attacking intent.
Forty seconds after the restart, they created a gilt-edged chance, but Kee missed it. McGurk released Phillips into the box and the winger crossed but Kee, under pressure from Lee Collins, toed the ball wide from close range.
Kee then blasted just high and wide from another Phillips pass as the Brewers ramped up the pressure.
McGurk headed a difficult chance over on 55 minutes after Phillips thundered into a tackle on ex-Burton man Kevin Amankwaah.
Northampton then looked to hit Albion on the break and Chris Hackett, clearly the visitors’ best player, struck a dangerous ball across the area which subsitute Roy O’Donovan almost made contact with at the near post before Sharps cleared.
The game had opened up after a cagey first half as both sides looked for the breakthrough.
Just after the hour, Dean Lyness – who again had little to do – had to save a low O’Donovan effort after Northampton broke through Darren Carter following a Burton corner.
On 67 minutes, Robbie Weir had a golden chance to score as Palmer’s corner came to him at the far post through a crowded area.
The midfielder had timed his run to perfection, but blazed over from close range with the goal at his mercy.
Three minutes later McGurk curled one just over from 15 yards on his less favoured right foot as Burton pressed for a winner.
The pressure was relentless from the Brewers, with a Phillips shot getting deflected for a corner by the overworked Collins.
And from MacDonald’s kick the Northampton dam finally broke as Sharps brushed Paul Reid aside to thunder a header past Duke.
What a time it was for the captain, skippering with Lee Bell on the bench, to register a goal.
As stoppage time began, Phillips again beat Amankwaah and hit a low cross which substitute Rene Howe toed over from close range under pressure.
Northampton’s David Moyo hooked a half-chance over in injury time but it was too little too late for the rock-bottom visitors, who, despite the scoreline, had been well beaten.