STEVE BRUCE is confident that his Hull City players will handle the pressures of a climatic Championship promotion run-in – even if the top-two race goes right down to the wire.
The second-placed Tigers have a head start on their rivals this evening when they visit eighth-placed Birmingham City, mindful that victory would see them reclaim top spot and move two points clear of Burnley and three ahead of third-placed Middlesbrough respectively.
On the flip side of the coin for the East Yorkshire outfit if they draw or lose at St Andrew’s and other results go against them, is that they could find themselves in fourth place and trailing their rivals by several points by the time they stride out for their next Championship appointment at home to MK Dons on Saturday, March 12 .
But Bruce, whose side are on FA Cup duty in a fifth-round replay against Arsenal on Tuesday night – when there is a full league programme – is keeping calm ahead of tonight’s return to one of his former clubs.
The 55-year-old, chasing his fourth managerial promotion from the second tier after taking Birmingham up in 2001-2 and 2006-07 and leading Hull to the Premier League in 2012-13, fully believes his Tigers squad have the big-game experience to cope with a daunting final 13 games, even if their fates aren’t decided until the final day.
Bruce, whose side have lost just once in nine league games so far in 2016, said: “We’ve got some big players in there and also some young ones, who it’s all new to.
“We’ve got the mixture right. It’s a nice blend. These are the experiences you remember and you hope it helps to have players who have been in big situations before.
“But I know the history of the club and I think it’s written in the stars that it won’t be easy.
“I don’t think we’re going to storm the division and win it by 20 points. I don’t think it’s in the DNA of this club somehow.
“There’s every chance it will go down to the wire. When there’s four teams separated by two points at the top of the league at this stage of the season, you’d think it will be close. It’s edging towards that.
“Maybe another 20 points would do it. I doubt 76 will be enough for us again like it was last time.”
Hull head to the Midlands as a side transformed on their travels this calendar year, having won four of their six league games on the road so far in 2016, losing just once and conceding a mere two goals.
Up until the end of last year, away form proved a bit of an Achilles heel for the Tigers, who won just four out of 12 matches, but it has been addressed, much to the satisfaction of Bruce.
The former centre-half’s sense of well-being is also augmented by City’s outstanding recent defensive statistics, with his side seeking their fifth consecutive clean sheet tonight, while conceding just one goal in 12 hours of Championship football.
That stinginess is such that Hull’s goals against tally of 19 now shares top billing in the second-tier with Boro, who famously kept nine clean sheets in a row in the winter.
Bruce, whose side have not yet leaked a goal in the first half so far this year in league and cup, added: “I’ve been delighted with how we’ve performed defensively. The two full-backs have been terrific, the goalkeeper and then two very good centre-backs.
“They are the ones who get the plaudits for that, but I think it’s the all-round organisation of the team that has made the difference. The four midfielders run a million miles for us – that makes us a difficult team to break down.
“To have kept 18 or 19 clean-sheets at this stage of the season, you know you’re going to be in with a chance. We don’t give much away. We’re a team that defends from the front and that earns us the right to play.”
Specifically on his side’s recent rock-solid defensive form on their travels, he added: “We’ve certainly got that resilience back and made ourselves difficult to beat.
“Someone is going to have to play well to beat us, which is important. That’s stood us in good stead since Christmas.”
Meanwhile, Bruce says he expects to have a chat with Scotland boss and ex-Manchester United team-mate Gordon Strachan shortly regarding fit-again wingman Robert Snodgrass – earmarked for a Tartan recall for the first time in 15 months in the forthcoming friendlies with the Czech Republic and Denmark.
The Hull chief said: “I’ve known Strach for a lot of years and he’s someone I can pick up the phone to.
“He’s been a football pal for years.
“It’s a conversation I’ll have. You can understand Snod wanting to play and it’s terrific news for Strach to have someone like him available.
“He’s done fantastically well to get to the level he’s at now. It’s quite remarkable how quickly he’s come back and hit the button.”
Last six games: Birmingham WDLDWL Hull LWDDWD.
Referee: S Martin (Staffordshire).
Last time: Birmingham 2 Hull 3; November 17, 2012; Championship.