Ten man Burton Albion have given themselves a chance of reaching the League 2 play-off final at Wembley after pinching a 1-0 victory over Southend United at the Pirelli Stadium in the first leg. Adam McGurk's classy finish on the stroke of half time but the Brewers had to mount a rearguard action for most of the second period after Ian Sharps was harshly sent off for two yellow cards in the space of as many minutes, the first for a handball that clearly hit him anwhere but on his arm.
Whilst Southend stuck with the same starting eleven that ground a 1-0 win against the Brewers in last weeks league encounter at Roots Hall there were numerous changes for Albion. Having recovered from a niggling groin problem Adam McGurk returned to the starting line-up to partner Billy Kee up front. Player Of The Year Ian Sharps, as expected, returned at the heart of defence and Zeli Ismail returned on the right as Matty Palmer dropped to the bench.
Albion started very brightly with McGurk in particular keen to run in behind the visitors back line. The first chance to test out the visitors fell to the Irishman but his cross from the right was too deep and failed to trouble keeper Daniel Bentley. Ismail also showed that it could be a long afternoon for left back Ben Coker when he nipped past his man and delivered a cross that had to be hurriedly cleared by John Egan.
Southend settled and there was danger down their left flank when Will Atkinson burst into the box but Dean Lyness was out quickly to deny him. Winger Kevan Hurst was also looking lively in the early stages with a cross that found hitman Barry Corr in the middle but Marcus Holness did enough to deny him a clean header and the chance dropped wide.
It did not take long for Coker to pick up a yellow card in his marking mission on Ismail. The on loan Wolves winger nicked the ball past him on the half way line and was unceremoniously dumped to the ground persuading referee Oliver Langford to put the left back in his notebook.
The first real chance came for Lee Bell on twenty minutes as Albion continued to harry the visitors defence. Kee looked as if he was being hauled to the ground but the ball still came for Lee Bell who avoided one challenge on the edge of the box before instantly hitting a rising drive that cleared Bentley's bar.
Southend's best chance in the opening half hour fell to Kevan Hurst who had a header in the middle that was straight into the arms of the waiting Lyness but they wasted a good opportunity to test Albion's keeper when Sharps conceded a foul just outside the box but Corr could not keep his curling effort down.
Will Atkinson forced a superb save form Lyness on 29 minutes as space opened up for Will Atkinson to take aim for the top corner but Albion's stopper leapt majestically to pluck the ball out of the air and not only save it but hold onto the ball.
Burton were roused into action on 38 minutes after some good link up play gave McGurk the chance to run at the defence. On his weaker right foot he struck a low shot that Bentley could only palm away to prevent it sneaking in the bottom corner of the net.
It was looking like needing a moment of real quality to break the deadlock and after Lyness had almost been deceived by a swerving effort from Hurst the Brewers took a big step forwards on the stroke of half time. McFadzean worked hard to make progress down the left and some excellent link-up play from Kee and McGURK gave the latter the chance to sneak in behind the defence and calmly lift the ball over the onrushing Bentley.
Half time: Burton Albion 1-0 Southend United
Burton kicked off the second half with a change. Ismail failed to reappear after the break and Matty Palmer was put on in a right sided midfield role as his replacement. Southend, though, forced a couple of early corners that had Burton's backline under pressure. Lyness again showed excellent handling to claim the last one whilst being fouled in the process. As the heavens absolutely opened in abundance Albion pressed forwards and a nervy punched clearance from Bentley gave Albion plenty of encouragement.
Ian Sharps picked up a yellow card for Albion on 57 minutes when Ryan Leonard burst through the midfield and he attempted to play the ball forward with Sharps blocking it and referee Langford adjudging a use of the hand. That decision had a huge impact barely two minutes later when Sharps stood his ground and Leonard this time went to ground , rather to easily, to persuade the referee to produce a second quick yellow and the inevitable red. It was incredibly harsh on the defensive lynchpin.
Forced into a reshuffle Phil Edwards moved into the centre of defence with David Gray brought on at right back and Billy Kee sacrificed from the attack.
Sensing a shift in the flow of the game Southend made a double change. Jacob Murphy and skipper John White were withdrawn from the action to allow the pacy Anthony Straker and striker Freddy Eastwood to join the fray.
The referee was in danger of letting the game get out of control as it became rather niggly but substitute Anthony Straker saw yellow for a mistimed challenge on Matty Palmer minutes after coming on and Corr finally saw yellow for an accumulation of offences as referee Langford's patience began to wear thin.
Corr was to take very little further part in the game with Lee Barnard thrown on for the last eighteen minutes to try and conjure up an equaliser.
With a quarter of an hour to go Albion were forced into their final change when McGurk went to ground and seemingly struggling with a calf problem he took no further part as Dominic Knowles took up the role of the lone striker.
Southend threw everything they had at Albion in the closing stages and only an outstanding save by Lyness from Leonard kept Albion's lead in tact.
Despite adding on over six minutes of stopage time the Shrimpers could not find a way through the determined Burton rearguard and it is all to play for at Roots Hall next weekend.