IT is advantage Derby County, although a slender one in their battle with Brighton to reach Wembley and keep their promotion hopes alive.
The Rams recovered from a difficult opening in last night’s Championship play-off semi-final first leg to beat the Seagulls 2-1 at the Amex Stadium.
They fell behind to a Jesse Lingard strike but showed terrific character to hit back twice before the break.
First, top scorer Chris Martin tucked away a penalty for his 24th goal of the season and then his thumping shot rebounded off the bar and found the net off the back of the unfortunate Tomasz Kuszczak.
Derby had their own keeper – Lee Grant – to thank for making at least three excellent saves and they held firm in the closing stages amid a crackling atmosphere.
We saw all the aspects of the Rams play in the 90 minutes – the quick counter attacking and the determined, dogged defending when needed. You need both to win games.
Now they have an opportunity to finish the job in Sunday’s second leg, but Brighton remain a dangerous opponent.
Supporters only have to think back to Derby’s last appearance in the play-offs in 2007 when they saw their team win at Southampton only to lose the second leg at home before they went through on penalties.
Derby, top scorers in the Championship and the team that finished third, started the tie as favourites to go through, and remain so.
This was the third time they have seen off Brighton this season.
The half a dozen players rested for Derby’s final league game against Leeds United at Elland Road last weekend returned.
Jake Buxton was back alongside skipper Richard Keogh at centre back, George Thorne filled the holding role in a midfield trio with Craig Bryson and Jeff Hendrick, while the front three was Jamie Ward and Johnny Russell either side of Martin.
Not too difficult a decision for head coach Steve McClaren as Derby had recorded five straight wins before the draw at Leeds. Brighton went into the game unbeaten in eight, a run that included the last-gasp victory over Nottingham Forest to sneak into the play-offs. They were unchanged.
Rain earlier in the day and the sprinklers before kick off gave the pitch a zip, and both teams looked to move the ball quickly in the opening stages as they felt their way into the contest.
Brighton wanted a penalty when Inigo Calderon went down in the area, and the left side of Derby’s team – Russell and left-back Craig Forsyth – struggled defensively with the early tests provided by the adventurous Calderon and Will Buckley.
An early warning to heed, but the Rams failed to do so and fell behind after 18 minutes.
The goal was created down Brighton’s right, not surprising given what we had seen in the opening exchanges.
Buckley’s clever flick found Calderon on another surge into the area. He picked out Lingard, whose first effort was blocked by Buxton, but the forward on loan from Manchester United lashed his second shot past Grant.
Russell and Ward swapped sides, and Derby needed to put a spoke in Brighton’s momentum. They did so in the best possible way just before the half hour.
Forsyth galloped down the middle of the pitch and exchanged passes with Hendrick only for Matthew Upson to halt his progress with what was a rash challenge for an experienced defender.
Referee Roger East awarded the penalty and Martin coolly sent Kuszczak the wrong way from the spot.
The incident highlighted how positive direct running, as we saw from Forsyth, can unsettle defenders.
Martin enjoys playing against Brighton.
His two goals beat the Seagulls at the Amex in August and any thoughts that this first leg might be a cagey affair had long since disappeared.
Suddenly, Derby started to believe and Brighton began to have a few doubts for the first time on the night.
Rapid raids by Ward and Russell stretched the home side, and ripples of concern and frustration rolled from the stands.
If the play-offs are unknown territory for this Derby team, as McClaren said pre-match, the players started to look at home in their new surroundings.
All season teams have found it difficult to cope with Derby when they hit their stride and there were signs of this happening, although Brighton’s big striker Leonardo Ulloa saw his downward header saved by Grant on his line.
Derby’s equaliser clearly unnerved Brighton defensively and the Rams went ahead in added time at the end of the first half.
Russell managed to take the sting out of a ball smashed into the area and teed up Martin, whose drive beat Kuszczak, crashed against the bar and struck the goalkeeper’s back before finding the net.
It has to go down as an own goal, which is cruel on Kuszczak and unlucky on Martin.
Trailing at home, Brighton’s nerve was being tested.
They sent on Kazenga LuaLua at the start of the second half, a pacy player who has given Derby problems in the past, but it was the Rams who almost increased their lead when Kuszczak denied Ward at the back post.
LuaLua and Calderon blazed shots over as Derby dropped a touch deep, although their pace in the wide areas offered a threat on the counter.
The game had reached a fascinating stage as Brighton had to seek an equaliser, and came within inches of doing so when Ulloa’s volley was tipped onto the bar by Grant.
Another big save at an important moment by Grant.
That is a keeper’s job, but he has done so on many occasions and has enjoyed a fine season.
Thorne (right), with his willingness to receive the ball and composure on it, tried to extinguish some Brighton fire.
The introduction of Simon Dawkins, and then Conor Sammon, gave the Rams fresh legs in the wide attacking areas but they found it increasingly difficult to obtain possession for any length of time.
This invited Brighton forward and the defensive work of Keogh and Buxton became crucial, as did the contribution of Grant, who pushed away a 25-yarder from Lingard and then made a superb stop from Stephen Ward.
Ward’s firm curling drive was heading under the bar until Grant leapt to turn the ball over.
Long journeys always seems shorter after a win, and the 2,800 Rams fans who backed the team so well will have smiled all the way home – but know the job is only half done.