A stunning second half performance in the face of being down to ten men enabled Burton Albion to overcome promotion rivals Southend United 2-1 on a thrilling night at the Pirelli Stadium. Having allowed Southend to take the lead in first half stoppage time through Barry Corr their first half misery was compounded by a harsh red card for midfielder Robbie Weir after his centre circle challenge on the striker.
Jon McLaughlin had also saved a penalty from Corr during an intriguing first forty five minutes but the second half was a stirring performance from the Brewers who showed great steel and determination to turn the game on its head through Matty Palmer's second in as many games and a stunning late finish from Nasser El Khayati silencing the visitors and sending Albion five points clear at the top of Sky Bet League 2 going into the last nine games of the season.
Both Palmer and El Khayati had come on as substitutes inside the first half hour as Albion adjusted to losing Callum Reilly (hamstring) and Adam McGurk (back) with both looking influential in the early stages.
Reilly was handed a full debut for the Brewers in the only change to the starting line-up from Saturday's 3-0 victory over Accrington Stanley. The Birmingham City loanee came in as a straight replacement for Palmer on the left hand side of midfield.
A burst of speed from McGurk won Albion the first corner of the game in the sixth minute after Burton had spent most of the early minutes in their own half. The corner was taken short to Tom Naylor and he fizzed a low cross through the six yard box where the normally reliable Phil Edwards scooped a shot over the bar. The popular defender beat the floor in frustration knowing what a good chance it was to seize the initiative for the Brewers.
Reilly lasted just eleven minutes as he limped off and Palmer was called upon to return to the pitch much earlier than had probably been expected.
Barry Corr used his aerial presence to force a back-pedalling tip over from Jon McLaughlin. Palmer then linked well with McGurk down the left, having set the winger on his way initially, and having skipped past a challenge he pulled the ball back into the centre where Naylor saw a shot blocked.
Corr then stung the palms of McLaughlin with a left foot shot on the edge of the area as space opened up but the Burton keeper stayed strong to deny Southend's leading scorer.
Skipper John Whte showed a burst of pace to get beyond Damien McCrory down the Southend right and his cross picked out Joe Pigott whose header took a vital deflection off a Burton head to concede a corner as the visitors built up a head of steam that Albion were struggling to combat.
There were baffled looks all round on 22 minutes as referee James Linington suddenly produced a yellow card for skipper John Mousinho and awarded the Shrimpers a penalty. It appeared that Mousinho had been penalised for dragging Pigott down at a corner but the usually reliable Corr was denied from the spot as McLaughlin got down well and superbly pushed the ball onto the post before the ball bounced across the face of goal and wide of the opposite upright to the delight of the Burton fans behind the goal.
Naylor also went in the book for a mistimed challenge on David Worrall but Southend failed to make Albion pay from the free kick.
Albion, playing pretty much on the counter, almost broke the deadlock moments later as Edwards picked out a cross to Beavon who made room for a shot that dipped over the angle of post and bar via a deflection off the boot of a Southend defender.
Pigott won another corner for the visitors but amidst the jostling in the box, this time it was Worrall that was penalised allowing Burton to clear at their leisure.
McGurk had been struggling with a knock for some time and before the game had reached the half hour stage Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had been forced into a second change with El Khayati thrown into the fray at the former Tranmere man's expense.
Edwards then squandered an even better chance, this time with his head. Palmer swung in a free kick after a push just outside the area was penalised by referee Linington but unmarked, six yards out, the full back headed over. It was Albion's clearest opportunity yet.
El Khayati had the ball in the back of the net racing onto a pass from Naylor but he was adjudged to have gone just too soon as Ryan Leonard lay injured in the Southend half, the visitors desperately trying to put the ball out to stop the game.
Tempers flared and the intensity rose a notch in first half stoppage time. McCrory was eased off the ball by Pigott who led the Southend charge and as Albion failed to clear their lines CORR was left in space inside the box to turn the ball in from close range for the opener.
The striker was centre of attention as the half came to a close. In an aerial collision with Robbie Weir the big Irishman went to ground having been caught by the arm of the Albion midfielder. Weir had his eyes on the ball at all times but as Southend players surrounded the referee in unseemly fashion, including goalkeeper Daniel Bentley running half the length of the pitch to get involved, the referee showed Weir a straight red card to reduce Albion to ten men for the second half.
Half time: Burton Albion 0-1 Southend United
Ryan Leonard fizzed a shot over the bar in the opening moments of the second half to have his manager jigging on the touchline at the thought of going agonisingly close to being two nil up. It was close and ultimately Southend, and Brown, would rue the missed opportunity.
Michael Timlin went into the book as well for a challenge on Beavon on 50 minutes. Southend continued to flood forwards and Kevan Hurst's snapshot had McLaughlin scrambling to save at the second attempt at his near post.
Matty Palmer's free kick allowed Akins to head straight at Bentley but it was not long before the young Southend keeper was picking the ball out of the back of his net. A superb ball out to the wing from Naylor embarrassed Ben Coker and allowed Akins to burst towards the penalty area. Cutting back inside he teed up PALMER who smashed home a right foot shot that was even better that his clinical strike against Accrington on Saturday.
It was Southend looking rattled now especially when Shane Cansdell-Sherriff hooked a shot wide at the near post from a corner. They then made a change with the impressive Joe Pigott replaced by the diminutive Jack Payne.
A second substitution for the Shrimpers followed shortly afterwards with Worrall, another to impress, was also withdrawn in favour of Myles Weston to the bemusement of the travelling Southend faithful.
El Khayati was having a growing influence on Albion's attacking and he struck a low shot wide after nipping past a couple of challenges outside the box. A prelude of things to come.
The Dutchman then dug out a searching cross to the far post that had Southend stretched but Akins, straining all the muscles in his neck to force a header on target could not beat Bentley.
Southend made an attacking change for their third and final substitution with centre back Adam Thompson sacrificed for an extra attacking body in the form of Jake Cassidy, a striker on loan from Wolves.
However it was Albion's earlier substitute who sent the Pirelli Stadium into absolute raptures with barely a minute of normal time to play. It owed much to a surging run from Beavon who evaded no less than three attempts to cynically hack him down. It looked like the chance had gone when John White dispossessed El Khayati but Naylor returned the loose ball with interest and the Dutchman grabbed possession to cut inside from the left hand side of the box and unerringly findd the bottom corner of the net beyond Bentley's despairing dive.
George Taft's introduction for Beavon as the game entered stoppage time ensured that Burton preserved what they had - a vital three points in their quest for promotion.
El Khayati though had completed a spectacular second half turnaround where Burton had hardly looked like a side with a man disadvantage and crucially Albion now find themselves nine points clear of fourth placed Bury with Southend a further two points adrift and with games slowly running out.