Steve Bruce on familiar ground as Aston Villa look to reverse spring slump
Last Updated: 31/03/18 5:57pm
The mood around Aston Villa has changed in recent weeks, but for Steve Bruce, it's likely been a case of déjà vu.
Where it once looked as though Villa would hit the automatic spots in the Sky Bet Championship and not look back, two shock defeats have left them with only an outside chance of pipping Cardiff into second.
But Bruce has been here before. In fact, three out of his record four promotions to the Premier League have included a huge slump just as spring arrives. After defeats by QPR and Bolton halted their momentum, Villa now face Bruce's old side Hull on Saturday teatime, live on Sky Sports Football.
Here, we highlight just how Bruce avoided a late-season collapse in the past…
Bruce's Hull were notoriously tight, picking up 18 clean sheets as they finished fourth in the Championship, with the help of current Villa players Robert Snodgrass and Ahmed Elmohamady.
This was a Premier League side in the making; Abel Hernandez, Jake Livermore, Sam Clucas, Mo Diame and Andrew Robertson starred, but the slump began in late February.
They took just seven points out of a possible 32 until mid-April, and dropped from being two points clear at the top to nine points off the automatic spots.
"Just at the wrong time we have stumbled," recognised Bruce, but Hull won four of their last six to ensure a play-off spot, and Diame's goal in the final against Sheffield Wednesday gave Bruce his record-breaking promotion.
It all turned sour, however, as Bruce left just two months after lifting the play-off trophy after growing frustrated at lack of transfer activity.
Hull were 40/1 outsiders for promotion at the start of the season and, after taking some time out of management to recharge, Bruce performed a miracle. But it wasn't without its bumps.
Again, Bruce's Hull were cautious but efficient, scoring less than any side in the top half, and winning 18 games by just one goal, but it almost fell apart in spectacular fashion.
Hull lost four of their seven games from late February to early April but, luckily for Bruce, none of the sides in the play-off places capitalised.
They even took just two points from their final four games, thanks to an injury crisis which left them with just one recognised striker, but were promoted on one of the most dramatic final days the second tier has seen.
Following a 2-2 draw with newly-crowned champions Cardiff, attention turned to third-place Watford. The Hornets - who would have pipped Hull to promotion if they had bettered their result - were drawing 1-1 when Hull's game finished, and knew that a goal would send them up.
But Leeds' late strike, and then the final whistle at Vicarage Road - 16 minutes after the end of the Hull game - was watched by thousands on the pitch at the KC, and also the Hull players in the tunnel. Cue some iconic scenes.
"The end was just ridiculous and having to wait. We've seen people in tunnels, people walking in corridors, people hiding in toilets, it was just really incredible," said Bruce.
Bruce's Birmingham were flying in mid-March, boosted by Cameron Jerome, Nicklas Bendtner and Gary McSheffrey. They sat top of the table, with a four-point cushion on third and a game in hand with 10 games to go, before three defeats in five left them in the play-off spots.
They were struggling to score - just 12 in 15 games - and a 7,000-strong Birmingham support at Oakwell greeted Bruce with jeers at full-time following a 1-0 defeat at Barnsley in early April.
"The strikers have not produced the goods since Christmas and have not given us the return that we expected," said Bruce. Those strikers were clearly listening.
Four straight wins, scoring nine goals in the process, took them to the top of the table with a game to go, thanks in-part to Derby's slump.
They should have won the league, but for a 1-0 defeat by Preston on the final day, allowing Sunderland to pip them, but Bruce had proved his promotion pedigree again.
And the other time...
Bruce's first promotion to the Premier League with Birmingham in 2001/02 was slightly more straightforward. The Blues lost their first two games in March to leave them in trouble, but went unbeaten throughout their final nine games to book a play-off spot.
A 2-1 aggregate win over Millwall in the semi-finals was followed by a penalty shoot-out victory over Norwich in the final after a 1-1 draw.
He got a reaction on those three occasions, but will he do it again with Villa? Watch Hull City v Aston Villa live on Sky Sports Football from 5.30pm on Saturday.