THE FA Cup and a re-run of the 2014 final may await Hull City this weekend but it is hard not to have one eye on the trio of key Championship games that follow Saturday’s trip to Arsenal.
Meetings with the teams sitting fifth, seventh and eighth lay ahead for the Tigers in the 12 days that follow the fifth round meeting with the Gunners.
Considering February has already brought clashes against Brighton and Burnley – third and fourth, respectively – along with a visit to Blackburn, Hull’s promotion prospects are certainly being tested to the limit right now.
With that in mind, it is tempting to suggest, as I did to Michael Dawson in the wake of Tuesday’s goalless draw with the Seagulls, that if Steve Bruce’s men are still in pole position come March 3 when this testing run of fixtures comes to an end at Birmingham City then they will be set fair for the rest of the season.
Dawson is too experienced to let such thinking deflect from his focus. “It is hard to look too far ahead,” said the club’s captain, who is expected to be among a host of changes made by Bruce at the Emirates with Tuesday’s trip to Ipswich Town in mind.
“We have 15 games left and that means so many points to play for. The Championship is a gruelling competition.
“Teams will always drop points along the way. It is all about keeping your focus and not get too disheartened if a result goes against you.
“We lost at Burnley (two Saturdays ago) but didn’t deserve to lose. We could have been down in the dumps but we weren’t and, instead, bounced back by winning at Blackburn.
“Against Brighton, we wanted to win. But, in the end, had to settle for a point. It means things are all so tight at the top – and we all have each other to play.
“For instance, Sheffield Wednesday are here at the KC (a week tomorrow night). All we can do is take it game by game. You can’t look at the fixtures and think, ‘We should get points there’ or ‘a draw might be okay there’. You just can’t do that.”
Tuesday’s stalemate against Brighton meant City doubled their lead at the top to two points.
Thanks to Middlesbrough being without a league game this weekend due to Reading joining Hull in Cup action, the Tigers will go into Tuesday’s trip to Portman Road in pole position regardless of results elsewhere.
It was a crumb of comfort from a frustrating night against the Seagulls, whom manager Chris Hughton admitted had looked to shackle their hosts.
But for a late shot from Sam Clucas that David Stockdale turned onto the post, the tactic worked brilliantly thanks to a disciplined display from them.
“The way Brighton came and set up showed us an awful lot of respect,” added Dawson. “That is down to how well the lads have done.
“We are top of the league so teams will not come and lie down. No matter what the league, that wouldn’t happen.
“I think other teams will probably come and set up like that this season, because they don’t want to get beat like Charlton did (6-0 on January 16).
“We went home with a point, when obviously we started the night looking for all three. But, let’s not forget, Brighton are a good team. They have an awful lot of good players and came here determined not to lose.
“They are good pros and they have a good staff. They did their jobs. We had a few half-chances and then Stockdale made a great save near the end. Brighton never really threatened our goal and were the happier of the two teams. But we take that point and now look forward to Arsenal in the FA Cup.”
Nick Powell is in line for his Tigers debut against the Gunners after gradually building up his fitness since joining on loan from Manchester United on deadline day.
Others likely to be drafted into the starting XI include David Meyler, Eldin Jakupovic, Sone Aluko, Ahmed Elmohamady and Harry Maguire as Bruce continues his policy of resting his first-choice XI in the Cups.
That way, the Hull manager hopes his players will be fresh for the double-header against Ipswich and Wednesday next week.
“The games come thick and fast so there will be changes at Arsenal,” added captain Dawson. “We have a squad of players where everyone wants to play. It is frustrating when you are not involved.
“That is what you need to get promoted. Every team has injuries, we have certainly had some this season.
“Players then came in – like Harry (Maguire) for myself – and did well. Then, the FA Cup gave me a chance to get 90 minutes under my belt after time out.
“I have been back for four games now and I feel good. I needed games. That is why it can be hard for the lads not in the team to come and perform to the standard needed. I am not where I wanted to be just yet but I am getting there.
“As for Arsenal, it is a chance for other players to play and show the manager what they can do.”