STEVE BRUCE has been suggesting for some time that Hull City’s season is primed for lift-off. Since the Championship resumed after the recent international break, his players have now started to deliver on that promise.
After claiming a point that with steadier finishing could have been all three against a resurgent Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough nine days ago, the Tigers ripped Ipswich Town apart in midweek.
That was good but what followed against an in-form Birmingham City side that had not been beaten on the road all season was even better, as Hull manager Bruce’s men produced the kind of display that sets apart genuine challengers from the wannabes.
From the burgeoning partnership of Abel Hernandez and Chuba Akpom up front through to a dominance in central midfield that was best epitomised by the tireless Jake Livermore, Hull were simply irresistible against a Blues outfit that had not only started the weekend in second place but also boasted the highest goals tally in the Championship.
Sam Clucas and Ahmed Elmohamady, now finally back to somewhere approaching his best after a lackadaisical few weeks amid speculation about a possible move away, were also on top form to leave Gary Rowett’s men well beaten despite contributing hugely to an entertaining fixture.
No wonder Clucas, who ran Livermore close in the man of the match stakes, felt able to suggest afterwards that things are coming together at the KC Stadium.
“I think we are getting into our stride now,” said the 25-year-old, a £1.3m summer signing from League One side Chesterfield.
“It was arguably our best performance of the season, especially when you look at where Birmingham are in the table.
“We got a comfortable three points and are now up to second. That does fill you with confidence, though it is still early days. I do think, though, that when teams look at this result, they will start taking note (of Hull City).”
This tale of two Citys was also a story about two goalkeepers, at least initially during an opening 25 minutes that saw both Allan McGregor and Tomasz Kuszczak rescue their side with quite stunning saves.
The Hull goalkeeper’s two big moments came against Jacques Maghoma, the former Sheffield Wednesday man being denied on 10 and 25 minutes by the Scot’s sharp reflexes. Had either of those gone in, maybe the afternoon could have worked out differently.
Or maybe not, with the hosts proving just as dangerous during those keenly-fought opening stages.
Certainly, the visitors needed Kuszczak to keep out a stinging volley from Clucas on 13 minutes that looked a goal all the way from the moment the ex-Spireite had sweetly met Moses Odubajo’s right-wing cross.
It was a wonderful save, though one the Blues goalkeeper was unable to replicate in what proved to be a decisive 97-second period shortly before the break.
First, a deep cross from Clucas was half cleared to Elmohamady and the Egyptian laid a deft pass to David Meyler who drilled a low shot beyond Kuszczak.
Then, as all but the 1,444 visiting fans basked in the glow of the midfielder’s second goal inside four days, the Tigers doubled their advantage with an even sweeter strike.
Hernandez was the goalscorer this time, the club record £10m signing collecting a pass from Andrew Robertson before turning smartly and drilling beyond Kuszczak.
It was a goal of the highest order and one that Hull really should have added to only for a combination of some profligate finishing and resilient defending to frustrate Bruce’s men.
Akpom and Clucas were both denied in the second half by Kuszczak at full stretch before Shaun Maloney fired into the side-netting when it appeared easier to score, Clucas having deftly diverted Elmohamady’s cross into the Scot’s path.
Had at least one of those second-half chances been converted, Birmingham could have had little complaint at the final scoreline after being so comprehensively outclassed by a team that has such an abundance of riches right now that proven Premier League performers such as Tom Huddlestone and Mohamed Diame had to settle for a place on the bench.
Having so many big names, of course, brings pressure of its own with the opposition invariably seeing a clash with the Tigers as an opportunity to claim a major scalp.
“It is a great motivation for the lads,” admitted Clucas. “We know teams are going to come here and try and beat us to take that scalp.
“They are going to put everything into it, they are going to be sharp in their passing and sharp in the tackles and we have to be better than that.”
The victory over Birmingham made it nine games unbeaten at the KC in all competitions this season. “Not many teams are going to enjoy coming here,” added Clucas.
“I think that showed with Birmingham playing five in midfield.
“They have played 4-4-2 in most of their games so that was a big compliment to us.
“They knew we were a threat, but we managed to break them down with another good performance.
“We have sent out a statement with this win. That is what the gaffer was saying to us at half-time. He didn’t want us to rest on our laurels. Instead, he wanted us to get another goal and make it four or five to send out a big statement to the rest of the league.”