Jermaine Easter returned to action with the only goal of the game as MK Dons got back to winning ways at Brighton.
Easter, restored to the Dons side after four games out with a thigh injury, took his tally for the season to eight with a poacher's finish early in the second half to sink the 10-man Seagulls.
Russell Slade's men were dealt a blow halfway through the first half when defender Adam El-Abd was shown a straight red card for a knee-high challenge on Richie Partridge. And Paul Ince's Dons seized on the opportunity presented to them to close the gap on the League 1 leaders with a first win in three games. Though clashes between these two sides have certainly been more memorable - last December's 4-2 classic at the Withdean standing out from the archives - the Dons would have settled for a gritty win before kick-off after back-to-back defeats against Leeds and Oldham.
And a gritty win they got as Ince's side, aided by El-Abd's indiscipline, put in the kind of solid shift Brighton fans would give their right arm for at present. Just twice now the Sussex side have won in 10 league outings this season, a stat that defies the huge investment made in a team who's value in transfer fees far outweighed their opponents. In striker Liam Dickinson, winger Elliott Bennett and substitute Glenn Murray alone, the Seagulls have invested nearly &pound;1 million in the last six months. But despite a scattering of decent moves and half chances, they rarely looked likely to test a Dons side that may have been vulnerable following two defeats.
But despite being without the injured Luke Chadwick and the suspended Jason Puncheon, Ince stuck to his footballing principles with a ball-playing midfield consisting of Peter Leven and Stephen Gleeson in the middle, flanked by Jemal Johnson on the right and Partridge, making his first league start, on the left. With a swirling wind to contend with, balls into the box at the Withdean always stand a chance of causing problems, particularly when propelled by the arms of Brighton defender James Tunnicliffe.
The giant central defender looks better suited to be meeting such deliveries, but when he launched one into the Dons box from the right just four minutes in, Dons 'keeper Willy Gueret had to make a solid reaction save to keep out Andrew Crofts' powerful header.
Brighton had started quite brightly and when El-Abd exchanged passes with Gary Dicker on the edge of the box seven minutes later, Gueret again had to stand up to block the resulting shot. But El-Abd was to erase all his team's early momentum with the challenge that changed the course of the game. The Seagulls full-back had been fortunate to avoid a dismissal in this fixture last season when he caught Leven with an x-rated high challenge.
This time he was not so lucky as he lunged into Partridge, studs raised, and sent the little winger tumbling to earth. Hertfordshire official Paul Taylor barely hesitated in producing a red card, though El-Abd, along with several of his team-mates, was convinced he'd been hard done by.
Vilified by the home crowd of his role in proceedings, Partridge took a volley of abuse for a challenge on Dickinson shortly afterwards and was booked for his troubles. But the Dons were quietly going about their business, keeping possession, keeping Brighton moving and increasing in confidence with every pass they made.
They might have been two goals up by half-time as striker Aaron Wilbraham passed up two golden chances to open the scoring - first shooting straight at Brighton 'keeper Michel Kuipers after Partridge had blocked a Tommy Elphick clearance and then seeing Tunnicliffe recover superbly after he'd brilliantly reeled in Leven's pass. But the visitors knew they were in control of proceedings, Leven and Gleeson particularly effective as they floated around midfield, keeping possession moving along and turning Brighton with clever passes in behind.
From one such Leven pass early in the second period, Wilbraham sprung the offside trap to win the corner that produced the game's only goal. Johnson's delivery was typically packed with dip and swerve, David McCracken flicked it into the six-yard box and Easter, lurking dangerously in front of Kuipers, instinctively headed home despite Bennett's best efforts on the line.
Easter celebrated with the released frustration of a man taken out of action in prime form a few weeks ago, but to return to the side with a goal was the best possible response from the Welsh international. It was also just what the Dons needed, giving them the breakthrough early in the second period that might have become difficult to obtain had the game been allowed to progress.
Easter should have had a second on the hour-mark when Wilbraham charged down Tunnicliffe's clearance to set him up in the box, but Elphick's recovery tackle was perfectly timed. And he might have won a penalty when he was seemingly pulled back by Elphick after spinning in behind onto an excellent pass from substitute Dean Morgan.
Brighton were far from out of it though and, having seen an Aaron Davies shot pushed over by Gueret earlier in the half, Dickinson passed up their best chance when he headed Nicky Forster's cross wide from point-blank range on 75 minutes. But they were made to work hard for their chances by a Dons side that kept the ball with terrific confidence in the second half, starving the home team of possession and emphasising their man advantage by making Brighton chase for long periods.
Having looked the home side's most likely source of a goal all afternoon, it was fitting that Dickinson should produce their last meaningful attempt, but his effort - a hopeful strike from distance Gueret could have caught in his sleep - was just about as good as Brighton were able to muster.
Brighton (4-4-2): Kuipers; El-Abd, Elphick, Tunnicliffe, Wright; Bennett, Dicker (Murray 81), Crofts, Davies (Thornhill 64); Forster (c), Dickinson.
Subs not used: Cox, Navarro, Livermore, Hart, Smith.
Booked: Dickinson Sent off: El Abd 26
MK Dons (4-4-2): Gueret; Doumbe, Darren Powell, McCracken, Lewington (c); Johnson (Howell 90), Gleeson, Leven, Partridge (Morgan 64); Wilbraham, Easter (Davis 81).
Subs not used: Carrington, Searle, Ibehre, Swailes.
Goals: Easter 49 Booked: Doumbe, Gleeson, Partridge, Leven, Davis.
Attendance: 6,419 (372 away)
Referee: Paul Taylor (Hertfordshire)