WINNING ugly is a vital virtue in any successful team but United’s elephant-man showing in the 1-1 draw was very close to being a bag over the head victory.
A slow start burst into life with Rene Howe notching the only goal from close range and from there, the action stopped for the boys in Yellow, as the normal cohesion and flow simply refused to arrive.
For their part, the Brewers created more than enough chances to earn a point but their moment only arrived in the dying seconds, as Calvin Zola fulfilled an afternoon of menace with a deserved equaliser.
United manager Martin Ling entered the game with one big decision to make and he opted to stick with the side that triumphed at Wimbledon on Tuesday, which meant Danny Stevens remained on the bench.
The one new face was Lloyd Macklin, now deemed sufficiently recovered from a hamstring complaint to take his place among the replacements, bumping Daniel Leadbitter out of the match-day squad.
Burton boss Gary Rowett was forced into a defensive change, replacing the injured Marcus Holness with Nathan Stanton. The visiting bench boasted former Gull Billy Kee, who had recovered from a virus to take his place among the replacements.
The highlight to a quiet opening on a mild September day inside TQ1 was a terrific defensive clearance from the assured Brian Saah, despite being placed under heavy pressure by former Southampton striker Matty Paterson.
Both sides continued to flirt with each other until captain Lee Mansell won the ball in midfield and surged into space before feeding the ball wide for Nathan Craig.
The Welshman’s instant cross took a wicked deflection, which looped the ball neatly to the back post, where Rene Howe was perfectly positioned to steer a confident finish past the exposed Stuart Tomlinson.
The Burton bench took the goal particularly badly, as referee Tim Robinson had waved away claims for a foul on Calvin Zola in the build-up, but United deserve credit for such an incisive break and the continued protests of Gary Rowett began to irk residents of the big Yellow Bench behind him.
His players, however, were far more focussed on the task in hand, and a whipped free-kick by former Plymouth youngster Damien McCrory was steered narrowly over by the wonderfully-named Zander Diamond, surely a man with Totnes links.
United were then thankful to Poke for a fabulous block from Jack Dyer, bravely diving at the Brewers’ midfielder after a half-volley from distance had originally proved too hot to handle for the Yellow custodian.
The Gulls were again grateful to their number one on the half-hour, as a fizzing cross from McCrory was met by a diving header from Zola and Poke was forced to scramble the ball clear with his knees.
Zola’s next chance was even better but the big forward sliced his shot horribly over after a long throw had found him unmarked in the box. The warning signs were there for United and Aaron Downes had a glorious opportunity to calm nerves from a Kevin Nicholson corner, but the Australian headed over.
The game was clearly heating up and a push from Saah presented Dyer with an opportunity to curl over a free-kick from the left wing. The delivery drifted beyond the outstretched arm of Poke and the Gulls could only wince with relief as the ball bounced off the bar and away to safety.
Before the first period came to an end, Ling was forced into a chance, with Nathan Craig hobbling out of the action to be replaced by Stevens in a straight swap.
A half-time lead, though very welcome, was perhaps kind on the Yellows and Burton started the second period with the same verve that marked their opening 45 minutes, with Jacques Maghoma curling a free-kick inches over.
There was no denying United’s performance was flat, lacking the usual spark and energy until Stevens briefly lifted the crowd with a dancing run down the left and Ian Morris had Plainmoor purring with a 40-yard pass for Howe.
Suddenly, the Yellow Army was stirring and a corner from Nicholson was headed just wide by Saah. Burton responded by introducing Kee for the ineffectual Paterson and the new man’s first touch was an awkward free-kick bouncing in front of Poke, who handled well.
United’s charmed goal had its luckiest moment just after the hour-mark, when a Dyer corner trundled to Zola at the back post, and his header somehow squirmed against the post, bobbled along the line before being hacked clear.
The siege on United’s goal was eventually broken by a storming run down the right from Howe, who exchanged passes with Stevens and Mansell before the ball was fed wide to Nicholson, and his fierce drive was arrowing for the far corner, forcing Tomlinson into a fine full-length save.
Ling turned to his bench on 72 minutes, removing the quiet Billy Bodin for the searing pace of Niall Thompson. The Brewers, meanwhile, replaced Dyer with Cleveland Taylor, and his first touch was a dipping volley angled narrowly over after a soft punch clear from Poke.
On the opposite flank, the arrival of Thompson injected some life into United’s attacking options but the general flow remained toward Poke’s beleaguered goal.
The equaliser finally arrived in the last minute and this time the luck was on Burton’s side, as a header from Diamond rebounded back off the post for Zola to stab home from two yards out.
It was a goal the visitors warranted but no less disappointing for the underwhelming Gulls.
Gulls (4-3-3): 1 Michael Poke; 2 Joe Oastler, 4 Aaron Downes, 5 Brian Saah, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 7 Lee Mansell (capt), 18 Craig Easton, 11 Ian Morris; 15 Billy Bodin (29 Niall Thompson 72), 9 Rene Howe, 20 Nathan Craig (19 Danny Stevens 43). Substitutes (not used): 8 Ryan Jarvis, 13 Martin Rice (GK), 14 Lloyd Macklin, 21 Thomas Cruise, 30 Kirtys MacKenzie.
Burton (4-4-2): 13 Stuart Tomlinson; 20 Anthony O’Connor, 4 Nathan Stanton (capt), 5 Zander Diamond, 14 Damien McCrory; 22 Jack Dyer (7 Cleveland Taylor 72), 8 Robbie Weir, 23 Lee Bell, 19 Jacques Maghoma (12 Adi Yussuf 86); 10 Calvin Zola, 18 Matt Paterson (29 Billy Kee 57). Substitutes (not used): 1 Ross Atkins (GK), 2 Andrew Corbett, 3 Aaron Webster, 9 Justin Richards.
Booked: McCrory 45
Referee: Tim Robinson
Attendance: 2,438 (145 away).