AHEAD of tonight’s eagerly-anticipated clash against former club Derby County, Hull City’s Tom Huddlestone is adamant the two teams who win automatic promotion will come from the current top five in the Championship.
The Tigers, unbeaten in 11 matches, are in pole position but will face a tough test in front of the live Sky cameras from a Rams outfit that has taken 29 points from their last dozen outings.
Despite that run making Derby the form side in the Championship, the Midlands outfit sit three places and two points behind Steve Bruce’s men in the table.
Also occupying a place in the leading pack are unbeaten Brighton, Middlesbrough and fifth-placed Burnley, who are already five points clear of nearest rival Birmingham City.
“The Championship is all about consistency,“ said Huddlestone, who made his debut for Derby at the age of 16 after being on the bench a few times as a schoolboy.
“Ourselves, Derby, Middlesbrough, Burnley and Brighton – who have had a great start that no one probably expected – are all up there. Our job is to stay there.
“After Christmas, there are always a couple of teams who go on an unbelievable run that can take them to second or into the top six.
“But I do think the top two will come from the top five as it stands at the moment. And I am hoping the top two come from the two teams there now.”
Hull will be without Michael Dawson and Andrew Robertson through suspension tonight, but Robert Snodgrass is due to return as a welcome boost.
The Scottish international has not featured for the Tigers since dislocating his knee on the opening day of last season.
Bruce plans to name Snodgrass, who has come through three Development squad games in recent weeks, on the bench tonight.
For a player to be out so long through injury is almost unheard of in football and Bruce admits that has posed a mental challenge for the 28-year-old.
“He was always strong-minded enough to handle it,” added the Tigers chief. “And he loves to play football. But, of course, there must have been times when he doubted if he could come back from the injury.
“I remember ‘Snod’ coming back in the summer for pre-season and watching him hobble. It was dreadful to see because he had already been out for 12 months.
“Obviously, he has worked so hard to come back and I have to say thanks to Christian Fernandez (Hull’s rehabilitation coach) because he has done a great job getting him in the condition he is in.”
Snodgrass, a £7m signing from Norwich City in the summer of 2014, was badly missed last season as the Tigers were relegated from the top division.
Bruce added: “For us to spend £7m, I would have to be well and truly convinced over the player. But I had no hesitation with Snodgrass.
“I had seen a lot of him. He played in the same team as my son (Alex) at Leeds and did fantastically well before he got his move to Norwich. Then, he was Player of the Year in the season they were relegated.
“To me, he is the complete midfield player in a wide area. He has got a wonderful delivery, he can score a goal, he sees a pass, he competes. Let’s hope he can get back to the levels he was at because we will have an outstanding player on our hands.
“What we must be, though, is patient. We have to give ‘Snod’ as long as it takes. We were dealt the cruellest of blows (when he was injured), but his blow was even bigger.
“I told him on Wednesday (about being substitute) and he beamed when I told him. When I asked if he felt ready, it was as if to say ‘Thank the lord’ you know.
“He has done four or five weeks and played three games in the (Under-)21s. His knee is as good as it is going to be, now he has to get that fitness up.”
Whether Snodgrass gets the chance to make his Hull return tonight or against Manchester City in the Capital One Cup quarter-finals next Tuesday remains to be seen.
But Hull will have to be at their best against Derby and Tom Ince, who left the KC during the summer for £4.75m after finding opportunities hard to come by last term under Bruce.
“There’s no ill-feeling on my part,” said the Tigers’ chief when asked how things had ended with Ince.
“I am sure there is ill-feeling from him towards me because he didn’t play enough.
“But there was nothing ever personal. Simply, we couldn’t match the terms that Derby offered him at the time. There was obviously circumstances to it but I don’t think us, as a club, will ever be paying the wages Derby have given him in the Championship.
“We have to respect that and understand that, but I fought long and hard to keep him here because he never really had a fair crack.”
Last six games: Hull City WDWWWD, Derby County DWWWLW.
Referee: G Eltringham (Tyne & Wear)
Last time: Hull City 2 Derby County 1; February 12, 2013; Championship.