If Hull City's extraordinary inability to grasp automatic promotion is down to nerves, their manager, Steve Bruce, confessed they should throw in the towel now.
Having seen his side face the bottom three Championship clubs in their last three games and fail to muster so much as a goal, everything now depends on Hull's final game of the season – at home to the champions, Cardiff. Should Watford, who face Leeds at Vicarage Road, better their result, Hull will have blown their shot at a financial open goal potentially worth £120m.
"If the nerves have got to them, then we might as well pack up now because we are [still] in it," said Bruce after a 2-0 defeat at Barnsley that reduced the certainty of promotion to a question mark. An early goal by Jacob Mellis and Chris O'Grady's second-half strike wrapped up the win for Barnsley.
"We have had a completely dispiriting time in which we have taken one point from our last three games – all against the bottom three," added the manager.
Choking is part of professional sport, whether it is Jean van de Velde self-destructing on the final green at Carnoustie when he needed just two over par to take the Open in 1999, or Bayern Munich refusing to win the Champions League with Chelsea at their mercy last year.
This season the atmosphere at the KC Stadium has been criticised for its flatness. There can be no repetition on Saturday when Cardiff, led by Malky Mackay, who played for and managed Watford, come north.
"Now is not the time for analysis," said Bruce. "The question to us should be, what are we going to do about it? All through the season they have shown the resilience to come back and win. We have a week to go out and show our teeth."
They may be a point behind Hull, but the momentum is with Watford. They have won their last two matches and face a Leeds side they thrashed 6-1 at Elland Road in November.
When Bruce took over at Hull in the summer, he remarked he was inheriting a side that might finish in the top eight or make the play-offs. They have over-achieved for most of the season but when it came to the business end of it, they have looked like the squad that perhaps, deep in his heart, Bruce knew them to be.
By using three centre-halves and employing Ahmed Elmohamady and Corry Evans as wing-backs, he had revolutionised Hull's approach until the loss of Sone Aluko exposed a very thin attack. "Scoring goals has been our Achilles heel," said Bruce.
Between them the club's three strikers, Jay Simpson, Nick Proschwitz and Matty Fryatt, have managed two league goals since October. Given that Fryatt has just returned from long-term injury, that is a cruel statistic but football, as those who poured into Oakwell from Humberside expecting a long, loud party are discovering, is a cruel business.Reuse content