Steve McClaren is already preaching focus, with this job far from complete and the Premier League still a few agonising twists and turns away yet, but his efficiently impressive Derby County boast the ascendancy in this tie. Brighton and Hove Albion were overcome for the third time this season here, their frenzied second-half rally failing to yield an equaliser. McClaren, deep down, will sense a return to Wembley is close.
The former England manager has not overseen a team there since he unfurled an umbrella and sheltered from a rainstorm while his tenure of the national side drowned in a soggy mess before his eyes against Croatia back in 2007. His impact at Derby this term, with this a 23rd win in 37 games since taking the helm in the autumn, would suggest his reputation in this country is edging towards redemption. To secure elevation at the national stadium may provide personal resolution. "But this tie is not over," came McClaren's warning. Football has scarred him too much already to take progress for granted.
There is good reason for caution. Brighton will pose a considerable threat in Sunday's return, even if they must make history by overcoming a deficit suffered in the home leg. They cursed Roger East's refusal to award a penalty for Jake Buxton's tug on Leonardo Ulloa, or for Craig Forsyth's clumsy tangle with Iñigo Calderón, and for the excellence of Lee Grant in the visitors' goal. His saves to deny Jesse Lingard, Stephen Ward and, in particular, Ulloa on the volley ensured the narrow lead remained intact.
Derby creaked at times, the final whistle provoking a sigh of disbelief from the home manager as he struggled to comprehend cruel defeat. "It was a totally unfair result," said Oscar García. "We were better than them in all areas apart from goal, and that's the most important area. It's difficult in the play-offs to see a game where one team is much better than the other one, but at the end of the day, they won. We have to believe, we need to believe."
They must recapture some of the zest of the opening 20 minutes here if they are to defy history, recalling the period where they monopolised possession most effectively while marauding with menace down the flanks. A swift free-kick while Derby dawdled earned the lead, Will Buckley back-heeling Calderón to the byline, from where the centre was perfect for Lingard. The Manchester United forward had peeled away from the clutter to make his own space and, after his first effort was blocked by Buxton, he thumped the rebound across Grant and in off the goalkeeper's glove.
Yet, while the lead was merited, that was as good as it got. The concession served to shrug the visitors, so becalmed up to then, out of their daze and County counterpunched ruthlessly. The aggressive Johnny Russell muscled his way upfield beyond home players before feeding Forsyth, charging from deep. The left-back exchanged passes with Jeff Hendrick in the penalty area, with Matthew Upson, Brighton's player of the year, lunging in to send him sprawling. Chris Martin's penalty was his third goal in this stadium this term, and his fifth in eight appearances for three clubs against these opponents.
He had not finished there. In stoppage time at the end of the first half Russell laid the ball off to the 24-goal forward just outside the area, with his effort belted against the crossbar, the ball cannoning down to strike an airborne Tomasz Kuszczak and bounce in off the goalkeeper's back. Thereafter the visitors clung on. "You saw every side of Derby County this evening," said McClaren. "We showed great character to recover from going behind but we ended up indebted to our goalkeeper for retaining the result. We can play better and we'll need to on Sunday. Brighton are a good side away from home."