A stunning climax at the Stadium of Light as the Brewers claimed a thrilling late victory to keep their Championship survival hopes alive whilst extinguishing the last flickers of Sunderland’s chances of avoiding the drop to League One.
With 85 minutes gone Albion were facing up to a frustrating 1-0 defeat after Paddy McNair had smashed the home side in front on 34 minutes. Darren Bent defied the jeers of the home crowd to head home on the rebound from Hope Akpan’s shot on 86 minutes to drag the Brewers level before Liam Boyce glanced a well placed header home for his second goal in as many games to complete a remarkable turnaround two minutes into added on time .
The drama, however, was not over with as Sunderland thought they had equalised through McNair who bundled home from a corner in the SIXTH added minute but having initially given the goal, referee Darren England ruled it out for a handball offence after consulting with his assistant.
It was a brave decision from the match official and when the final whistle sounded the consequence was that Chris Colemans’s side are relegated to League One. Albion meanwhile focus on another basement battle at home to Bolton Wanderers next Saturday.
Tom Naylor and Damien McCrory returned to the side after injury to bolster Nigel Clough’s defensive options. With McCrory a more natural fit at left back he came back in at left back with Naylor resuming his highly effective central defensive partnership with Kyle McFadzean. Ben Turner and Jake Buxton dropped to the bench which was restored to its full complement of seven by the return of former Sunderland striker Bent with Marvin Sordell also available again after injury.
In the spring sunshine both sides knew the importance of getting the first goal and although Albion had some spells of good possession in the opening exchanges it was the home side who put the first threatening ball into the box with midfield enforcer Lee Cattermole directing an angled ball in towards Ashey Fletcher but referee Darren England adjudged him to be climbing all over McFadzean in his attempts to win the ball.
Albion sprung into action and quickly had young Joe Sbarra darting forward to deliver a cross that was initially cleared before a second cross picked out Lucas Akins at the back post, the winger cleverly bringing Luke Murphy into the action, the midfielder testing Jason Steele with a 25 yarder.
Burton continued to look for the better chances and Akpan twice went close from corners on the right. The first time he was denied by a Sunderland defender just getting there first before the second effort just found his timing a little awry as the ball trickled wide.
The game was getting a little stretched at times as both sides sought out that priceless first goal of the afternoon. Murphy’s touch just deserted him a little as he wound up for a thirty yard effort that he ended up scuffing towards goal and at the other end Paddy McNair stung the palms of Stephen Bywater with an effort from the edge of the box which preceded Fletcher drilling a ball dangerously through the six yard box that had too much on it for anyone in the box.
The frustrations of the home support soon disappeared when Sunderland grabbed the lead on 34 minutes. Fletcher ran into the box attracting a number of Albion defenders towards him, all unable to make a challenge before the striker unloaded to McNAIR who drilled hard and low beyond Bywater from the edge of the ‘D’.
Four minutes before the break Albion’s best chance, arguably, of the first half came their way. Akins worked his way across the box before picking out Sbarra at the back post but the youngster, who maybe had time to take a touch, scuffed his volleyed effort wide of the post. A head in hands moment for the Brewers as half time approached.
Sunderland’s Marc Wilson was the first man to see yellow from Mr England for a poor challenge on Brayford out on the right that led to a hastily cleared free kick. As the game entered first half stoppage time it was Murphy that guided a low Brayford cross into the arms of Steele. The Brewers had it all to do in the second half.
Half time: Sunderland 1-0 Burton Albion
Davenport, who picked up a harsh yellow card on the cusp of half time, almost got himself into Mr England’s book for the right reason early in the second half with a rasping left foot shot that Steele gratefully clung on to after excellent work by Akins on the right.
Albion had to be careful not to concede a second goal whilst pushing hard for the equaliser and a quick release from Steele had Fletcher on his own in the Albion half but he was unable to get the better of McFadzean tracking back.
The Brewers suddenly burst forwards and an excellent angled ball to Akins had the men in yellow on the attack. The winger cut inside and sent the ball through the area with skipper John O’Shea exceedingly lucky not to drag the ball into the back of his own net.
Wilson then became the luckiest man inside the Stadium of Light as his blatant block outside the area was one of those where, had he not been booked already, he would have certainly seen yellow for that one. With Chris Coleman preparing to take the former Stoke man off he could have quite easily lost Callum McManaman to a straight red card. The winger’s challenge on Damien McCrory was not pretty and sent the Albion left back to the ground awkwardly. After treatment McCrory was unable to continue and his poor run of luck with injuries continued with what looked to be a shoulder injury forcing him off. Ben Turner was once again forced into left back duties with Wilson replaced by Adam Matthews for the home side.
All of this was around the hour mark and at the same time Sunderland almost doubled their advantage with the dangerous Aiden McGeady drifting a left foot shot just wide of the far upright.
Coleman also wasted little time in protecting McManaman by taking him off. The popular Joel Asoro coming on in his place.
Davenport had Steele at full stretch on 70 minutes with a free kick that the Manchester City loanee won for himself but unlike at Barnsley his magical left foot could not find the back of the net as the Sunderland stopper made a key stop.
With Albion in real need of a goal Clough turned to former Black Cats striker Bent who received a less than hospitable reception from the home fans.
Sunderland missed a number of half chances as McGeady and Asoro in particular were denied by last ditch blocks and challenges deep in the Brewers penalty area.
As the game came down to the last ten minutes both sides made one last throw of the dice. Sunderland opted to change Lamine Kone at the back for Chelsea loanee Jake Clarke-Salter while Albion introduced Marvin Sordell in place of Murphy as a final attacking change.
But the man who Sunderland had booed vociferously onto the pitch had the last laugh on them. The ball bobbled around the box before coming out to Akpan. The midfielder drilled in a hopeful shot that Steele saved, the ball looping up perfectly for BENT to head it back where it came from and agonisingly take an age to cross the line.
Nerves were jangling for both sides as Fletcher hit the bar for the hosts before Bent’s blistering volley was somehow saved by Steele.
The pandemonium was only just starting as the atmosphere changed completely as BOYCE headed home from Turner’s cross and was quite happy to pick up the yellow card for taking his shirt off.
Albion hearts looked to have been broken when a corner was somehow bundled home and referee England gave the goal. However after what seemed like an age he was persuaded to speak to his assistant on the far side who, nobody knows what he said but whatever it was made the referee change his mind and award a free kick for handball.
Heart in the mouth stuff and Albion had had a slice of fortune go their way. Who knows how crucial this result could be in two weeks time.
Time to take a breath and prepare for Bolton at home next Saturday. The fact that the two sides are playing each other relegates Sunderland but that matters little to those of an Albion persuasion. Its another relegation six pointer if the heart can stand it but the Brewers are alive and kicking.
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