Championship manager-of-the-month Steve Bruce admits his high-flying Hull City side have emerged from the shadows and been thrust into the limelight in 2013 – thanks to comments from his Leeds United counterpart Neil Warnock.
While much of the talk in the first half of the season revolved around the likes of Cardiff City, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough, the Tigers were largely able to slip under the radar.
But Bruce, whose top-ranked Yorkshire side host Sheffield Wednesday in one of two White Rose derbies whose outcomes hold significance at both ends of the table today, feels all that changed on December 29.
That was the day the second-placed Tigers sealed a league double over Leeds – who have Everton prospect Ross Barkley in the squad for the trip to Barnsley this afternoon – with a 2-0 victory, with Warnock labelling Bruce’s men as the ‘best side in the division’.
Bruce, whose side have won six of their last eight league games in a fine unbeaten streak, said: “I have enjoyed just getting on with my job and trundling along, but all of a sudden, maybe since Neil Warnock’s comments, teams are looking at us differently.
“We are just coming out from underneath the radar and that is when it becomes dangerous.
“Teams are aware of us now. A lot of teams over the last few weeks have changed formations and systems all to combat us. We will have to get used to that.
“We have given ourselves a great opportunity, that is all. We have give ourselves a chance. Let us hope we have a bit of luck – as we will need that – and let us see if we can win 12 of 20 games. If we do, we will have an outstanding chance.
“We have got to keep it going. We have sent a message out to the Football League by the way we have played, that is the key to it.”
Five wins and a draw by the Tigers earned Bruce his Football League award for December, but he will be well aware of the threat from Wednesday, who need points for different reasons in today’s televised KC Stadium encounter (5.20pm).
Owls chief Dave Jones believes his side can cause an upset at the high-fliers.
The Owls slipped back into the relegation places after defeat to Burnley on New Year’s Day, but that was their first loss in five games.
The Owls had won at Barnsley and Bolton and drawn at Huddersfield and that form on the road has renewed Wednesday’s belief that they can climb out of trouble.
Jones said: “Hull are having a good go at getting back in the Premier League. They are at home and will be expecting three points.
“We have got to be at our best to go there and get a result. We have to be as strong and confident as what we have been over the last month or so.”
Eighth-placed Leeds, two points off the play-off spots, head to Oakwell, a venue which has proved a real house of pain for them in recent years, with Barnsley having scored a total of nine goals in two emphatic victories over their Yorkshire rivals in the past two seasons.
All told, the Reds have won their last three home matches against the Whites, with visiting manager Warnock mindful that today’s large away contingent, who make the short trip south, will be desperate to cast aside some demons, particularly after last season’s 4-1 trouncing on New Year’s Eve.
Warnock, who yesterday signed Everton’s England Under-21s midfielder Barkley, who has been at Sheffield Wednesday this season, on a one-month loan, said: “I think our fans and everybody knows Oakwell has not been a good place for us.
“From what I have read, last year was about the worst display anyone has seen from a Leeds team. We have got to try and give our fans something better than that. The minimum is that we give 100 per cent as Barnsley is always difficult, wherever they are in the league.
“Despite their position, performances have not been too bad. That is why I thought Keith (Hill) was a little bit unlucky (to be sacked).
“I always think that the games against teams at the bottom end of the division are far harder, far more difficult.
“Everyone expects you to do things and I know how difficult it is at Barnsley. They battered us for half-an-hour at Elland Road and how they didn’t score, I will never know.”
It has been a fraught week behind the scenes at Oakwell, with a second managerial target in Terry Butcher turning down the vacant post on Wednesday night, with caretaker-chief David Flitcroft – despite saying his goodbyes to players on Tuesday – again leading the side today.
But despite the sense of limbo for existing staff and players, Flitcroft is urging the Reds to fully focus ahead of today’s key encounter and adopt a fearless approach as they seek their first Championship home win since September 1.
Flitcroft, who has urged the club’s board to appoint a full-time manager soon to end the sense of drift, said: “That is the key word for me, focus.
“You can have adversity circling all around you, but once the game kicks into gear at 3pm, you are right in the middle of a local derby.
“If you are not focused or stood up to be counted and your heart is not pumping out of your chest or your mind is not strong, you will fail.
“It does not matter what experience you have got, whether you are young or not, it is a ‘no fear’ approach that is needed, and that is what we have to do.
“There is no place to hide in this football match. It is quite exciting that Leeds is our next match.”
Previews: Pages 2 and 3.