SITTING in the Algarve sunshine just 10 days ago, Steve Bruce should have been in buoyant mood.
A Premier League return was less than a month away, along with the prospect of pitting his wits against some of world football’s top managers.
But, as jovial and welcoming as Bruce had been when greeting The Yorkshire Post at Hull’s warm weather training camp, there was an unmistakable sense that something was still not right.
Bruce looked weary, even a fortnight’s holiday on a Portuguese sunbed – “the first 10 days of which I spent asleep,” he later quipped – not having been sufficient to flush away the grind of what had been a difficult and draining 2015-16 campaign.
During the interview that followed the completion of Hull’s morning training session on the outskirts of Portimao, the 55-year-old opened up on what a big decision it had been to stay.
Wife Janet had wanted him to quit, Bruce revealed. He also found living away from the family’s Midlands home increasingly tough, and in particular the many hours spent on the motorway. But the lure of the Premier League had brought him back.
We then talked budgets – “It’s not the biggest, but I can work with it” – and his pride at the great strides Hull had taken during his four years at the helm. There was even a typically light-hearted assessment of the Tigers’ daunting start to the season.
“I was in the pool on holiday when I was told about our first four home fixtures,” he laughed. “I swam to the bottom and thought about staying there.”
Now, of course, someone else will have to tackle champions Leicester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea at the KCOM Stadium. And Hull City are much the poorer for that.
Make no mistake, promotion last season was down to Bruce. He kept the club together at a time when other off-field issues were ripping it apart.
A new membership scheme to replace season tickets that included no concessions, coming on the back of the attempts to rebrand as Hull Tigers, had created a chasm between club and supporters that, it was abundantly clear, would never be bridged with the Allams at the helm.
Red card protests had become a familiar sight at games towards the end of the season and the atmosphere in the East Riding the very opposite of that expected at a club chasing promotion to the top flight. This point was subsequently underlined by the banks of empty seats at Wembley for the Championship play-off final. Fans had simply had enough.
Amid all this, Bruce had to try to keep an already wobbling team on track. It was a task he found, thanks to those off-field shenanigans, exasperating.
This much was brought home to this correspondent in the immediate aftermath of the home win over Wolverhampton Wanderers on April 15.
Having sat through Bruce’s post-match press conference with the national press, I followed him outside the media room for our usual, separate chat – Wolves being a Friday night game, fresh quotes were required for Monday morning’s The Yorkshire Post.
Interview over and dictaphone off, I thought that was it. But Bruce, clearly in the mood to talk, had other ideas. For the next 45 minutes, he poured his heart out over what was going on at Hull. And what, specifically, could be done about improving such a toxic atmosphere at games.
On a night when the attendance had been given as 15,554 but there had appeared to be at least 3,500 fewer inside the stadium, Bruce had been jeered for substituting a full-back with the ultimate match-winner, Robert Snodgrass.
Was it him? Were the fans fed up after nearly four years of the same manager? Had the speculation linking him with Aston Villa caused the upset? If so, he said with passion in his voice, let’s do something publicly to let people know it was nonsense.
Driving back along the M62 after midnight, I couldn’t help but think, ‘How has it come to this?’
Six weeks later, Hull were celebrating promotion at Wembley but now the manager who oversaw that success is gone. So, too, is any semblance that the Tigers are anything but a club in total chaos.
Plotting a path through this mess is not going to be easy. And the fear has to be that we will now see just what a titanic job Bruce did in keeping the lid on things at a club that increasingly looks, to the outside world, as being at war with itself. Things could be about to get a lot worse.