DECEMBER was a rotten month on the road for Hull City.
Defeats to Preston North End and Rotherham United were bad enough, especially as, at the time, both opponents could be found sitting perilously close to the Championship relegation zone.
Worse, however, was the 2-1 loss at Leeds United that left a visibly irate Steve Bruce accusing his players of acting like ‘Big-time Charlies’.
Similar words had been said in the away dressing room at Elland Road, Ahmed Elmohamady revealing post-match that he had only once seen the Tigers manager angrier than he had been at half-time during their near six years together at Hull and Sunderland.
Reminded yesterday by The Yorkshire Post about that derby defeat, Bruce’s first reaction was to grimace at the memory.
Then, he asked which rollicking Elmohamady believed to be his angriest, Aston Villa away last season being the answer.
“Both of those were bad days at the office for us,” said the 55-year-old ahead of today’s opportunity to avenge that December loss to Steve Evans’s Leeds.
“Even now, I can’t tell you why it was so bad in that first half at Leeds. I have had a saying for many years, one the players probably take the mickey out of me for behind my back.
“In football, you can get beat by a better team or someone who had all the luck but there is just no excuse for not showing up. Absolutely none. And that is what happened at Leeds in what was, let’s not forget, a big derby game.
“Not turning up, for me, is the biggest insult that can be thrown against a team of mine. Yes, you can get beat and I understand you can’t play at the top level all the time. But you have to get beat with your boots on.
“But, at Leeds, we weren’t up for it. When you lose your temper, you lose your temper. You can’t pick or choose. And I lost my temper that day.
“If you do it too often, week in and week out, it has no effect. People just down tools. But if you tell a few home truths then it can bring the right reaction. And it did that day at Leeds, even if we weren’t able to get anything in that second half.”
December’s woes on the road were offset to an extent by claiming a maximum nine points from the visits of Bolton, Reading and Burnley to the KC.
The first month of 2016 then proved to be a dream for the Tigers, who as well as progressing through two rounds of the FA Cup also won all four league games.
It was enough to take City to the top of the Championship, a position they held until the very last week of February only to then suffer such a collapse in form that any hopes of automatic promotion had gone before the recent back-to-back wins over Wolverhampton Wanderers and Reading.
Nevertheless, another win today will take Hull on to 79 points, the tally that proved enough to take the club up in second place under Bruce three years ago. For the Tigers chief, it is an illustration of the quality that the Championship has contained this term.
“You have to say two teams being on 84 with three to go and another on 86 is incredible,” said Bruce before Burnley took on Preston North End last night.
“It has never been done before. Not that I can recall, anyway. Leicester got more than 100 a couple of years ago and ran away with it. But I can’t remember a few fighting it out, all on so many points at this stage. We are just disappointed not to be three or four points better off ourselves.
“Or, that there were six games to go in the regular season and not three. Or four in our case. That loss of form at just the wrong time has proved costly.”
Today may bring a chance to avenge December’s derby loss at Elland Road but it is another meeting with Leeds as Tigers manager that stands out for Bruce.
“The big one for me was when Leeds came here in our promotion season,” he said. “The atmosphere was electric. We played so well that day and I thought to myself, ‘We have a chance’.
“Our Christmas Party was that night and everyone was on a high.”
The feel-good factor swirling around the KC Stadium during that final home game of 2012 is very different to today, as was evident in the last home game against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
A flat atmosphere together with Bruce being jeered when making his substitutions smacked of a club sitting fourth bottom rather than in the play-offs, something that the Tigers chief still finds difficult to understand.
“Maybe the big difference from that Leeds game in 2012 to now is no-one gave us a cat in hell’s chance that season,” added Bruce. “We were massive outsiders at the start of the season. We got a few loans in and a few free players. Then, the thing took off. That is what we have to get back to. We need that atmosphere back.
“People need to think, ‘Look, all those Leeds fans coming across (today) would give their right arm to be in our position’.
“I understand the expectation we have created. And then not lived up to. In many eyes, we should have walked our way through this league and be 20 points clear.
“But nothing is a given in the Championship. People need to understand that. If you need proof of that, look at the teams in the bottom half of the division, never mind those who are going to miss out on the play-offs.
“And the season can still end on a high. It should be exciting times to look forward to.”