Derby County v Hull City: Bruce urges Tigers stars to enjoy promotion race

THE Championship run-in is upon us and even the most cursory of glances at the top four's schedule reveals a host of fixtures with the potential to make or break a club's push for automatic promotion.

Matt Mills grabs Mo Diame's legs in a desperate attempt to stop his attack during last month's clash between Hull and Nottingham Forest. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

On the final day, for instance, Middlesbrough host Brighton & Hove Albion in what could be a ‘winner takes all’ showdown.

Second-placed Boro also still have to travel to leaders Burnley on April 19 as well as take on Ipswich Town and Birmingham City, two sides hoping to gatecrash the play-off places in the final few weeks.

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Burnley also face Gary Rowett’s Blues and Ipswich Town this month, while Brighton’s penultimate match is at home to Derby County.

Every one of those fixtures is a potential banana skin, as clubs chasing the Holy Grail of the Premier League look to boost their own chances while inflicting damage on a rival.

And then there is Hull City. Tonight brings a trip to sixth-placed Derby but, after that, the Yorkshire club’s remaining seven fixtures will be against teams either marooned in mid-table, already doomed to the drop (Bolton Wanderers) or fighting relegation (final-day opponents Rotherham United).

On paper, it looks a helpful run-in and one that could yet propel Steve Bruce’s men back up the table over the next month.

For his part, the Tigers’ chief has set his players the target of at least five wins from the final eight matches.

“Derby is a huge game,” said Bruce ahead of tonight’s trip to the East Midlands. “Probably the biggest of the season so far, and that result (the weekend’s 4-0 hammering of Bristol City) puts us in a decent frame of mind, hopefully.

“There are eight games to go and we are very much in this race. There are an exciting few weeks ahead of us so let’s go and enjoy it.”

Hull’s return to not only winning ways at the weekend but also goalscoring form was timely. In their previous five league outings, Hull had collected just three points and scored twice.

With Boro having won on Friday night and Brighton’s game with Burnley at the Amex having finished 2-2, the three points kept the Tigers in touch at the top.

There is, though, little margin for error during the run-in if an assault on the top two is to prove a realistic target for the East Yorkshire club.

“Let’s hope the result against Bristol City reminds everyone that we are right in this promotion push,” said the Hull chief.

“We need to get behind the team and start believing we can do it because we have still got an outstanding chance of getting out of this division. Getting that win should help our confidence and give us that belief heading down to Derby.”

Asked about a run-in that after tonight pits Hull against sides sitting 12th or below in the table, Bruce replied: “We will just focus on ourselves.

“It would be lovely to think other teams can do us a turn, but if we don’t win our own games then we are not going to win promotion.

“We have to just look after our own games and set the challenge to find at least another five wins from these last eight games. If we can win more then great, but we know we are capable.”

Derby are the only team to have won at the KC Stadium this term in the league, November’s 2-0 triumph having suggested at the time that Paul Clement’s side were strong contenders to finish in the top two.

Since then, of course, Clement has been sacked and the Rams have endured an indifferent run of form that leaves the Midlands club sixth and in danger of missing out on the play-offs for a second time. Bruce added: “Derby are a very good side but (their form in 2016) just shows you how tough this division is.

“They have spent a lot of money in the last year and they are a big club with big traditions. But they have not found it easy this season.

“There are a few people who think we are Hull City and it is just a given that we will go straight back. That is definitely not the case because it is such a hard league.”

Abel Hernandez will have to be content with a place on the bench again tonight after being left out of the starting XI against the Robins.

Bruce is likely to opt again for Mohamed Diame and Sone Aluko as he looks for the victory that would set up nicely the weekend return to former club Huddersfield Town.

Asked about the trip to Derby, the Tigers’ chief replied: “On paper, this looks like being our toughest game left in the run-in.

“But you can’t take any team in this division lightly. I saw Huddersfield a few weeks ago and that won’t be an easy game, that is for sure.”

Last six games: Derby County LWLDWL, Hull City LLDDLW.

Referee: T Harrington (Cleveland).

Last time: Derby County 1 Hull City 2; December 21, 2012; Championship.