STEVE BRUCE believes the Championship promotion race is shaping up to be the most keenly fought in years after admitting Hull City are ahead of schedule in terms of points accrued – despite sitting fourth in the table.
The Tigers head to Rotherham United today determined to continue an upturn in results that has seen six points taken off Bolton Wanderers and Reading during the past week.
That double means Hull boast 41 points from 21 games, the same number as third-placed Derby County but two adrift of both Middlesbrough and Brighton & Hove Albion.
“You have to say the four teams at the top have shown a remarkable consistency,” said Bruce ahead of taking on a Millers outfit still smarting from manager Neil Redfearn’s stern words following the midweek defeat at Huddersfield Town.
“Brighton haven’t lost and then there is Middlesbrough, Derby and ourselves all above 40-odd points. To be on that before the halfway stage is quite remarkable. At halfway, you could have teams closer to 50 points than 40, which I thought you needed.
“It has been a fantastic effort from those four clubs for consistency and it is important that we stay with the pack over these next four games. That is what I have tried to hammer home over the last few weeks.”
When Hull last won promotion in 2012-13, Bruce’s men were second on 44 points at the halfway stage. Eventual champions Cardiff led the way that Christmas, three in front of the Tigers.
Asked if City’s current tally meant his men were ahead of schedule this time around, Bruce replied: “Yes. We have got two games to go until the halfway point and, hopefully, we can be looking at being north of 44 or 45 points. That puts you on course for 90 points.
“We went up with 79 three years ago. The four teams have been very consistent and there is a gap appearing below them. You have to give the top four credit and, in particular, Brighton. They remind me of ourselves three years ago. We didn’t go 20 games unbeaten but we were unfancied and very difficult to beat. Chris (Hughton) has done a great job.
“I would say it looks like the three teams above us are the main challengers but Burnley could soon be back up with the top teams. You have also got Ipswich on a great run. There is always someone who surprises you, too. Cardiff are on a good run. I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone come from the pack and mount a serious challenge but, at the moment, the top four are looking very, very good.”
In contrast to the Tigers’ optimistic mood, Rotherham have had a difficult week. Defeat to Huddersfield followed by Redfearn’s describing his squad as “not good enough” for the Championship means the Millers need a lift against Hull.
The New York Stadium chief added: “We have got to respect Rotherham United’s badge, respect the shirt and do more for our supporters. If they see you battling and having a go then they will forgive you. But we have got to show that, we cannot drop below that. That is the bare minimum.”
Thanks to Leeds United’s 3-2 victory at Wolverhampton Wanderers being moved to last Thursday night for live broadcast by Sky TV, two Yorkshire clubs have to wait until tomorrow to play this weekend.
Leeds host Preston North End as Simon Grayson makes his first return to Elland Road as a visiting manager since being sacked in 2012, while Sheffield Wednesday welcome Wolves to Hillsborough.
After taking seven points from United’s last three games, Steve Evans is in bullish mood ahead of going head-to-head with a manager who he got the better of over two legs in the 2014 League One play-off semi-finals when in charge of Rotherham.
Evans said: “We want a busy Elland Road against Preston, as you could see what the players think of the fans that travelled to Wolves. They asked if they could put their shirts in (the crowd) and now I am going to get charged for about eight or ten shirts!
“But Preston are difficult opposition and they don’t concede many goals. Simon will get a nice reception, as he should. He is a manager I get on really well with and who I have done battle over the years with. But I don’t want to focus too much on any opposition because we are Leeds United and we can beat anyone.”
Wednesday, meanwhile, have won just once in eight games and Carlos Carvalhal wants to see a response to the poor midweek performance that resulted in a 2-1 loss at struggling Milton Keynes Dons.
The Portuguese said: “I remember that last year Derby County lost Chris Martin with seven games left. They did not even reach the play-offs. They lost one player. We are missing six or seven, important players, and we never complain about it. But it is a reality. We are still in a good shape, a good way.”
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