If Hull inflict a fourth straight defeat on third-placed Sunderland, it will ensure the Wearsiders cannot catch them in the title race. Good results from Lincoln City and Blackpool’s earlier kick-offs, and it could even guarantee promotion.
As others have faltered with the prize in sight, Hull have gone on an 11-match unbeaten run, dropping just four points. It is a mentality former Rotherham United and Middlesbrough midfielder Smallwood has driven even though injury has kept him off the field for almost all of it.
Smallwood made his return in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Fleetwood but only came off the bench in stoppage time, his first football since going off injured against Burton in the first week of February.
“He’s been excellent, Richie,” says manager Grant McCann.
“It’s very difficult when you’re injured because you’ve got a set plan to do every single day and the injured players will probably stay longer than the boys who are training. They’re just desperate to get back fit.
“But Richie’s involved in everything we do. Every meeting we have with the leadership group, every team meeting, Richie’s there.
“He comes to all the games, he’s in the changing room. He speaks to the staff, he speaks to the players, he’s a huge influence and a total born winner.
“We knew when we signed Richie that’s what he was about and just to have his influence in and around the group when he’s been injured, has been a huge advantage for us and a huge boost for the players.”
If Smallwood is a born winner, the same could be said of the likes of Josh Magennis and George Honeyman, survivors of last season’s relegation, and of some of the others added to the squad. It has allowed the Tigers to stay steady whilst the likes of Sunderland, Lincoln, Portsmouth and Doncaster Rovers got themselves into good positions and seemingly buckled under the pressure.
“It was massive for us to keep those characters here and then bring in the likes of Richie, Lewie Coyle and Greg Docherty, it’s been excellent what they’re about as well,” says McCann.
“Then you’ve got the young boys coming through the ranks with Keano (Keane Lewis-Potter), Greavesy (Jacob Greaves) and seven or eight Under-23s training with us every day just to keep them in and around these people.
“It’s been pleasing. I think we’ve got a nice mix. Our training is relentless every day, boys are into each other constantly trying to win. It doesn’t matter what it is, they want to win. It’s been really great this season and the boys are buying into everything we’ve been doing and we understand there’s a way to go still.”
McCann admits there was a degree of uncertainty about how the chemistry of the squad would be when he added the likes of Smallwood, released by Blackburn. The mindset serving them so well was, McCann believes, forged on a pre-season tour which took the team to the National Football Centre in Scotland at a time when local teams were barred from it because of fears over covid.
“What we did in pre-season put us in position to do what we’re doing at this present time,” he says. “The first week we met, we went straight to Edinburgh and I think that was very important to us that all the new players got to know each other and almost lived in each other’s pockets, really.
“There were cameramen all around the training ground and reports in Scotland that we shouldn’t be there but Hearts were training there, it was their training facility we used, although for the last couple of days they had to stop.
“We knew we were going into a Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday season so we made sure every training session was tailored around that. Things have come together for us up to this point but we have to finish the job. It was very important, that week was huge for us, but that’s gone now.”
Reece Burke could also return tonight, having resumed training following a calf injury. Having seen his team concede just three goals in Burke’s five-match absence, though, McCann may be reluctant to break up the back four – Coyle, Greaves, Alfie Jones and Callum Elder – who have played in all of those games.
Honeyman missed Saturday’s win with a knock and is a doubt to face his former club, potentially opening the door to Smallwood.
If Lincoln lose at Burton and Blackpool fail to beat Rochdale, a Hull victory will secure an instant return to the Championship. With their rivals kicking off at 7pm, the Tigers should know by half-time what the equation is.
Last six games: Hull City WWWWDD; Sunderland LLLDWW
Referee: C Breakspear (Surrey).
Last time: Hull City 1 Sunderland 1, September 16, 2017, Championship.
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