KEEP right on to the end of the road might be the words of Birmingham City’s club anthem, but they could easily apply to Hull City’s 2015-16 story.
Manager Steve Bruce’s declaration that a passage back to the Premier League will not be straightforward and that Hull must journey on regardless represented particularly sage advice ahead of the game. And even more so this morning.
On a night when they could have moved two points clear at the Championship summit, the East Yorkshire club endured an evening of sheer frustration when they could not breach the Blues’ defence, try as they might.
They must now wait to see what their high-flying rivals do before returning to league action themselves tomorrow week.
It proved far from the St Andrew’s return that former Blues boss Bruce would have wished for, but promotions to the top flight rarely come easily.
Hull certainly merited something from proceedings after creating enough chances to win a couple of games despite being far from at their best, but occasions like this are commonplace in run-ins as Bruce will well know.
Sides at both ends of the table scrap for everything and run that extra yard like never before as Birmingham did in a second half when they defended as if their footballing lives depended on it – with any luck that was going falling into their lap.
The main piece arrived early for the Blues in the shape of Jon Toral’s match-winning strike on 14 minutes, with his low shot clipping the heel of Curtis Davies to wrong-foot Allan McGregor.
The home fans’ relief was palpable at the final whistle as they moved to within one point of sixth-placed Sheffield Wednesday, with Gary Rowett’s pre-match hope that Bruce was not to be afforded a “lovely Thursday evening in the Midlands” transpiring.
Given the fact that both sides came into the game with a reputation as clean sheet specialists of late, many would have assumed that a cagey and defence-dominated encounter would transpire.
But quite the opposite materialised in a wonderfully open and flowing half, with the only surprise being that just one goal was scored.
It came when the recalled Toral turned on a sixpence after slack play by Andrew Robertson before seeing his venomous shot deflect in.
Birmingham, who wowed the crowd with some slick and pacy counter-attacking football at times, looked the part, but so did Hull on occasions, possessing more than a semblance of threat going forward.
A combination of poor finishing and bad luck barred a way through, but there was plenty of encouragement all the same.
Toral’s early strike represented Hull’s first Championship concession in almost six and half hours and the first time the Tigers had shipped a goal in the opening half of a game since December 19.
But Hull, methodical in contrast to the high-octane Blues, produced a quick response with Jake Livermore shuddering a post with a thumping shot before the hosts were indebted to the woodwork once more.
Michael Dawson saw his header clip the bar from Robert Snodgrass’s superb inswinging free-kick when he should have done better, and Sam Clucas also spurned a good chance, shooting at Tomasz Kuszczak when clear despite home appeals for handball.
At the other end, a brilliant passage of play saw McGregor splendidly tip over ex-Tigers forward Clayton Donaldson’s stunning overhead kick just after the half hour, with the dangerous Toral flashing wide a header.
Unfortunately, the signs at the start of the second period were rather more worrying for Hull, who looked laboured initially. Bruce sensed drift and sent on Adama Diomande and Nick Powell for the quiet Mo Diame and Tom Huddlestone.
The replacements quickly combined, but Diomande’s shot was wild, with Hull’s angst compounded soon after when strident penalty appeals for handball were rebuffed after Abel Hernandez’s shot struck Paul Robinson.
Kuszczak was then called into meaningful action.
First the home goalkeeper blocked Livermore’s effort at his near post before a double save to deny Snodgrass and Clucas as Hull got back on message.
But the chances continued to stack up with Michael Morrison superbly blocking Clucas’s goalbound effort 10 minutes from time – and the lingering impression it might not be Hull’s night ultimately proved the case.
Birmingham City: Kuszczak, Caddis, Morrison, Robinson, Grounds; Gleeson, Kieftenbeld, Cotterill (Davis 76), Toral, Maghoma, Donaldson. Unused substitutes: Legzdins, Fabbrini, Soloman-Otabar, Spector, Buckley, Shotton.
Hull City: McGregor, Odubajo (Elmohamady 76), Dawson, Davies, Robertson, Snodgrass, Huddlestone (Powell 59), Livermore, Clucas; Diamé (Diomande 59), Hernández. Unused substitutes: Jakupović, Maguire, Maloney, Hayden.
Referee: S Martin (Staffordshire).