Tough characters required as Hull begin battle to beat drop

Hull City's Alex Bruce.

Hull City's Alex Bruce.

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“THE tickly bit,” is how Steve Bruce refers to a season’s run-in when a prize as big as Premier League survival is at stake.

Maybe, though, the Hull City manager would be best borrowing a phrase from his old mentor, Sir Alex Ferguson, and describing the next 10 or so weeks as “squeaky bum time”.

Certainly, a run-in that features six of the seven clubs chasing Champions League qualification is enough to induce a sense of unease among even the most level-headed Tiger.

Yorkshire’s sole representative may be five points clear of the bottom three but they are going to have it tough in those final 10 games.

Only Manchester City of the seven clubs chasing either the title or Champions League qualification are absent from City’s fixture schedule. Throw in trips to Swansea City and a revitalised Crystal Palace, and things start to look very sticky, indeed, for Hull.

Not that Alex Bruce, a mainstay of the defence since mid-December, is worried. He appreciates that, starting with Saturday’s trip to bottom club Leicester City, it is going to be a time for tough minds and tough characters at the KC Stadium but the 30-year-old is adamant that is exactly what the City squad possesses in abundance.

“We have shown what we are about lately,” Bruce, in his third season with the Tigers, told The Yorkshire Post. “Injuries were a problem earlier in the season but I think the results recently have shown we are up for the fight.

“People may talk about who we have to play or who we haven’t but all we are focused on is the next game. That is how we operate.

“But, when the big teams do come around, we will be ready. If you look at us, this season we have picked up points against the big clubs. And then maybe not got the points we should against the lesser teams.

“That shows why you have to take each game as it comes. You can’t do anything else. Look at last season, we beat Liverpool at home and they nearly won the league.

“We beat Everton this season and came very close to winning at Arsenal and Manchester City. They are established Premier League teams that we think we can take points off.”

Looking round the fixtures involving the bottom seven clubs, Hull’s does look the most forbidding.

Even Leicester City and Burnley, the two relegation rivals still to face Bruce’s men, will go into those meetings with recent history on their side.

The Clarets, for instance, have won each of their last four visits to the KC and eight of nine meetings over the past six years. Included in that run was last November’s 1-0 triumph at Turf Moor, a first league win of the season for Sean Dyche’s men.

Leicester don’t quite have the same Indian sign over the East Riding club but Nigel Pearson has beaten his old employer in the last two clashes at the King Power and he left Hull with all three points in December.

It means the two most eminently winnable games for the Tigers are likely to be far from straightforward and that points are going to be needed from elsewhere.

In that respect, City’s big plus from taking on so many of English football’s big boys during the season’s finale is that most will be on home soil.

Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United are all due to visit the KC along with Burnley. Win a couple of those and also take three points from Saturday’s trip to Leicester, the picture will look a lot rosier.

“We do have three games out of the last four at home,” said Steve Bruce when asked about May. “But they will be tough. Arsenal, Manchester United and Burnley are all tough games.

“Spurs away is also down for May as well so that is a tough last month. But the big thing for me is, who would have given Burnley a hope in hell of getting a result at Chelsea?

“Who would have given us a hope in hell at Manchester City? Or Arsenal. That is the beauty of the league and how tough it is.”

As it stands ahead of this weekend’s 29th round of fixtures, Hull are in a promising position. Three places above the drop zone and four points ahead of QPR in the last relegation place, Bruce’s men have a foundation to build on.

Rangers, Burnley and Leicester would certainly swap places in an instant with the Tigers and a glance at their respective run-ins reveals just how tough it may well be for the trio most in danger of the drop.

Burnley, for instance, have excelled on home soil but a remaining programme of visitors that starts with Manchester City on Saturday and also includes Spurs, Arsenal, Leicester and Stoke is potentially a tough one. By the time Sean Dyche’s men head to Aston Villa on the final day, it may be too late.

Ditto QPR when they travel to Leicester on May 24. Rangers are the only side in the bottom seven to have played more home than away games.

Loftus Road will stage just four more matches, which considering QPR have lost 12 out of 13 on the road is not an encouraging statistic.

Leicester complete the bottom three but even a kind run-in that includes seven remaining home games may well not be enough to fend off the threat of relegation.

The Foxes, with just four wins all season, are just too far off the pace to suggest that even winnable assignments at home to Hull, West Ham, Newcastle and Sunderland are unlikely to save them. If, though, one or even two of the bottom three can go on the sort of run that saved Sunderland a year ago, Hull won’t be the only club hoping that a tough run-in does not transmit into a dearth of points.

Villa, for example, have difficult trips to Old Trafford, White Hart Lane, the Etihad and St Mary’s to come after this Saturday’s crunch clash at the Stadium of Light.

Sunderland, meanwhile, will be hoping to be safe long before a final day trip to Chelsea.

Two wins in 14 previous games on Wearside this term suggests that home comforts won’t keep Gus Poyet’s men up – which is a concern for a club whose remaining away fixtures include trips to four clubs – West Ham, Arsenal, Stoke and Everton and Jose Mourinho’s Blues – in the top 10.

The beauty, of course, in trying to second-guess how the relegation scrap will pan out is that nothing can be predicted other than a few bums will be squeaking as the season reaches a climax.

“Every team has good players and every team is well organised,” admits Steve Bruce. “Every team is difficult to play against and difficult to beat.

“That is why it is the toughest league in the world and the spectacle it is.”

Let battle commence.

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