Two goals from Chris Martin combined with a mature away performance from the side helped Derby County to their first Sky Bet Championship victory of the new 2013/14 season.
Leonardo Ulloa’s 17th minute header had the Seagulls ahead before Martin clawed the Rams level in the first-half when he poked Craig Forsyth’s cross into the bottom corner.
The former Norwich City striker completed the turnaround in the 46th minute when he swept home right-back Kieron Freeman’s low cross, and in turn sealed the side’s first three points of the new campaign.
Six summer arrivals at Pride Park has given manager Nigel Clough plenty to ponder. The Rams’ boss experimented with various formations during pre-season to best amalgamate his new players, with a 3-5-2 tried and tested at Bohemians in the Rams’ opening friendly fixture of 2013/14, whilst a 4-3-3 was adopted at Burton Albion in the side’s penultimate warm-up game.
However, at the Amex this afternoon, Clough changed tack with forward Jamie Ward the unfortunate casualty, as Paul Coutts was implemented in defensive central midfield role to protect the back-four in a fresh 4-1-3-2 formation.
Therefore, the trio of Will Hughes, Jeff Hendrick and Craig Bryson where handed central midfield starts, with full-backs Forsyth and Freeman expected to provide the side’s width.
The Seagulls lined up without midfielders Liam Bridcutt (groin) and Andrea Orlandi (knee), and although Keith Andrews completed a season-long loan from Bolton Wanderers earlier this morning, manager Oscar Garcia deemed the arrival too late for a starting spot, as the duo’s replacements were plucked from the South Coast side’s Development Squad, with Rohan Ince and Vitālijs Maksimenko handed their first ever Championship starts.
It was a tentative start from the hosts which the Rams almost capitalised on, as in the opening minute Forsyth galloped down the left and sent a firm cross into the six-yard box which narrowly evaded the advancing Martin.
Although the Seagulls have become somewhat renowned for their tika-taka style of football, it was Derby who displayed the most aesthetically pleasing passing in the opening quarter of an hour, and the Rams were unfortunate not to go ahead in the 13th minute.
Defender Freeman’s perfectly timed tackle on Ashley Barnes thwarted a swift Albion counter attack. The right-back then fed Bryson, who in turn released Johnny Russell; the former Dundee United striker strode forward and sent a 20-yard effort inches wide of Tomasz Kuszczak’s near post.
However, for all the Rams’ fluent play, the Seagulls roared forward four minutes later and exhibited a real killer instinct in front of goal. David Lopez freed compatriot Inigo Calderon down the right; the defender sent a ball in towards Ulloa, who stooped to firmly head the Spaniard’s cross into the bottom corner.
But the travelling Rams fans only had to wait nine minutes for a moment of deserved, pure ecstasy. Forsyth’s low cross from the left picked out Martin at the near post. The striker’s initial shot was blocked by Gordon Greer, but Martin was allowed the time for a second effort at goal, which he duly accepted as he poked the ball beyond Kuszczak.
Before the half was up, the Seagulls felt aggrieved not to have been awarded a penalty when Lopez’s free-kick hit the Rams’ wall, which the Albion bench were convinced had struck an arm. But it was Derby who ended the opening 45 minutes on top as neat interplay between Coutts and Martin lead to an off-balance Bryson sending a 20-yard snap-shot wide.
Derby started the second half in scintillating fashion as with just one minute gone, Coutts released Freeman down the right; the full-back delivered an inch-perfect, first time cross to Martin, who swept the ball into the back of the net in a wonderfully crafted move.
The Seagulls responded when Will Buckley escaped the Derby offside trap and saw his fierce shot superbly turned away by Lee Grant, whilst at the other end Martin was proving a real menace in attack, as his ability to retain possession and bring the Rams’ onrushing midfielder into play was causing the hosts plenty of problems.
But in a blink of an eye Albion came within a matter of centimetres from an equaliser. Calderon’s deep cross from the right picked out Ullou, who hung in the air as though he was on a step ladder and agonisingly glanced the defender’s centre off the inside of the post.
Ulloa’s header was followed up by an instinctive 25-yard volley from Ince that dropped narrowly wide, before Richard Keogh and Freeman produced superbly timed interventions to deny Buckley and Kemy Agustien respectively.
But the Rams remained a threat in attack as substitute Jamie Ward had a low shot deflected over by Matthew Upson prior to an outstretched Martin coming within inches of connecting with Hendrick’s drilled cross.
With the match entering its final 10 minutes there was still time for a few scares for the Rams as former Watford winger Buckley rose highest to flash a header over following Lopez’s free-kick, although Ward almost put extra gloss on the victory when he scampered through on goal and drilled wide from a tight angle.
Derby County: Grant (GK); Freeman, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth, Coutts, Hendrick, Bryson, Hughes (Eustace 84), Martin, Russell (Ward 65).
Subs not used: Legzdins (GK), Smith, Sammon, Jacobs, Davies.
Brighton & Hove Albion: Kuszczak (GK); Maksimenko, Upson, Greer, Calderon; Ince (LuaLua 80), Agustien, David; Buckley (March 85), Barnes (Andrews 70), Ulloa.
Subs not used: Ankergren (GK), El-Abd, Crofts, Forster-Caskey.