A NIGHT that began with Hull City hoping to begin the process of reeling in their promotion rivals ended with the unmistakeable sense that a fatal blow had been inflicted on those hopes of gate-crashing the top two.
A first half double from Bradley Johnson set Derby County on their way to a comfortable league double over the East Riding club who, thanks to late strikes from Chris Martin and Craig Bryson, slumped to their heaviest defeat of the season.
That was bad enough but when news came through from elsewhere that Middlesbrough and Brighton & Hove Albion had both won, City heads dropped that little bit further towards the chest.
Seven points now separate Steve Bruce’s men from Boro in second place with Burnley a further point ahead at the top.
And with Aitor Karanka’s men, who like Hull have a game more to play than the rest of the leading pack, facing another two home games in the coming seven days against eminently beatable opposition in Preston North End and Reading, City’s hopes of automatic promotion are hanging by a thread.
Certainly, it is hard to imagine anything but a faultless final seven games being enough to overhaul two of the three sides sitting above Hull in the table.
In fact, a more pressing problem may well be the teams snapping at the Tigers’ heels with Sheffield Wednesday now just a point behind.
Derby, too, are now within touching distance of City, whose only plus from last night was seventh placed Cardiff City being held at Turf Moor.
A strong defence is what Hull’s season has been largely built upon. Even when goals proved hard to come by in February and March, the Tigers’ solid backline helped grind out vital points.
Curtis Davies has been central to this strong rearguard but last night he was horribly culpable for the opening goal on the half-hour.
Collecting the ball wide on the left when there appeared to be little or no danger, the City defender got himself in an almighty tangle and his slip was seized upon by Bryson. As Davies looked on helplessly, Bryson raced clear before looking up to pick out Chris Martin with a drilled cross.
Martin should have capitalised but could only fire against the post. City’s let-off, however, proved only temporary as Johnson pounced on the rebound to sweep a first time shot beyond Allan McGregor.
It was an awful goal to give away and the Tigers’ night took another turn for the worse eight minutes before half-time.
This time, impressive approach play and not woeful defending was behind the visitors again being breached by the left foot of Johnson.
Lovely interplay between Marcus Olsson and Tom Ince, the latter pulling off a delightful back-heel, opened up Hull and when the ball was squared to Johnson there was no way the former Leeds United midfielder was going to spurn such an opening.
City’s frustration as they left the field at the interval was clear for all to see. With good cause, too, as until Davies’s slip there had been very little between the two teams. Scott Carson had tipped over a looping header from Sam Clucas but, otherwise, neither goalkeeper had much to do in those opening 45 minutes.
Straight after Johnson’s opener, Mohamed Diame did have a great chance to restore parity but, after wriggling his way in behind the home defence, the Senegal midfielder’s touch was woeful and the ball ran dead.
Any hopes of a comeback were dealt a crushing blow 10 minutes after the restart when a sublime through ball from Bryson released Tom Ince and Moses Odubajo’s response was to haul the winger to the ground.
Tony Harrington reached straight for his red card and Odubajo’s night was over. Unfortunately, Hull’s wasn’t just yet as Ince curled a free-kick just past McGregor’s post before Johnson was guilty of wasting an excellent opportunity when a simple pass would have released Martin.
McGregor had to then save smartly from Martin after City’s defence had been caught flat-footed by Johnny Russell’s in-swinging free-kick before Martin punished more poor play with a left-footed finish six minutes from time. The final insult for the 1,227 travelling fans came in stoppage time when Bryson tapped in at the back post.
City did have a couple of decent chances in the second half but Scott Carson saved from Clucas and Shaun Maloney hooked wide.
Had either of these gone in, however, it would have merely papered over the cracks for City, who are now closer to Cardiff in seventh place than Boro in the final automatic promotion place.
Derby County: Carson; Christie, Shackell, Keogh, Olsson (Butterfield 81); Bryson, Thorne, Johnson (Hanson 87); Ince, Martin, Russell (Weimann 90). Unused substitutes: Mitchell, Buxton, Bent, Blackman.
Hull City: McGregor; Odubajo, Dawson, Davies, Robertson (Hernandez 50); Snodgrass, Huddlestone, Livermore, Clucas; Diame (Elmohamady 63), Aluko (Maloney 70). Unused substitutes: Jakupovic, Bruce, Meyler, Hayden.
Referee: T Harrington (Cleveland).