Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, Burton Albion are in town, and we all know how much the Brewers love coming to the Stadium of Light.
Burton are another club in this black hole of a division where there is little history, having only joined the Football League in 1950.
The only silverware to their name is the League Two title from a successful promotion campaign in 2014/15 under now manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. (Amusingly a young(ish) Neil Warnock managed the club between 1981-86).
When you think of Burton you probably think decent breweries, which is very true. You also probably recall Nigel Clough, who had managed the Staffordshire side for an impressive 937 games. And painfully you’d be reminded of Darren Bent and Burton relegating Sunderland in the woeful 2017/18 Championship campaign, made even more abstract by the middle-aged southern couple waving money at the referee in Fulwell 73’s Netflix production Sunderland ‘Til I Die.
The Brewers are no strangers to shitting on our parade having come away from the Stadium of Light four times without defeat, three of which have been while in the third tier. Earlier this season the sides met at the Pirelli Stadium, during the lads’ impressive start to the campaign, and conspired to lose 1-0 yet dominating the game. Wasteful on the night, Aiden McGeady missed a one on one having been put clean through from the halfway line. And the luck was not with the lads that night as played for both Tom Flanagan was controversially adjudged offside as he looked to have slotted home a last-minute equaliser.
Burton currently sit 12th in League One having accrued 43 points from their 33 games so far. Focusing on their away form, Burton have only scored 13 goals on the road to date, and only keep a clean on average every five games. Their current form has yielded only eight points from the last eight games, however that trumps us who have only accrued a pathetic five in the same period.
Looking at the likely Burton line-up, there’s regular faces in goalkeeper Ben Garratt, with defenders Tom Hamer and skipper John Brayford. Regulars in the midfield are Connor Shaughnessy, Joe Powell and Jonathan Smith. Up top has changed during the January window as Sheffield United recalled young striker Daniel Jebbison, who was the club’s leading scorer with nine goals. In comes tall striker Gassan Ahadme from Norwich, having played for Portsmouth on loan the first half of the season. Christian Saydee joins on loan from Championship Bournemouth, while a scout of the free agent market saw former £13.5m Everton forward Oumar Niasse join the club last week. Hassellbaink has preferred a 3-1-4-2 formation this season, so expect two of those three incomings to start up front.
For the lads it’s getting pretty desperate, and to an extent you have to feel for Alex Neil. He’s inherited a squad with very little match sharpness, youngsters burnt out, and a team lacking experienced professionals at the right age. For a side that’s already conceded 46 goals this term, it’s hard to see a clean sheet with the personnel available, unless he can get three centre-backs in.
The starting line-up will again depend on the fitness of Danny Batth, and whether Neil is prepared to take a chance on Arbenit Xhemajli. Although at fault for the MK Dons goals, Jay Matete looks our best prospect in the middle of the park, while skipper Corry Evans is coming under some scrutiny for passive performances of late, and a perceived lack of leadership having dodged post-match interviews.
Jack Clarke will be hoping for a start after another bright spell off the bench Saturday, and further labours the point, if you’re brought in in January and not playing, what are you doing here? This is compounded by the PR driven signing of Jermain Defoe, who as much as we love him, doesn’t feel very relevant here. I’d expect Thorben Hoffman to return between the sticks having recovered from a period of illness, which may improve our distribution out of the back, if anything.
It’s now at the stage where we need to let the league take care of itself, get back to basics defensively, and get back to suffocating teams with our attacking press. How likely that is with the current state of the squad remains to be seen, but Burton’s defence is there for the taking of they want it enough.
Failure will only further compound the need for succession planning for yet another League One campaign, which will only be mildly palatable if Messrs’ Donald, Methven and Sartori are completely disassociated from the club we love.