Match report: Kevin Phillips brings Hull City back down to earth at Crystal Palace
STEVE Bruce could not leave Crystal Palace quick enough when offered the chance to take charge at Birmingham City back in 2001.
That acrimonious split assured him of a hostile reception back on the stage of his 18-game reign and, after Hull City fell to a damaging defeat at the hands of their promotion rivals, the same urge to depart Selhurst Park in a hurry returned 12 years on.
No sooner had the automatic promotion pendulum swung into City's grasp at the weekend, it is back in the hands of another this morning after an awful night in South London.
Within three days of sending supporters giddy with a 5-2 demolition of Birmingham at the KC Stadium, another painful away day brought another fall out of the top two.
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Although City could point to a dubious handball decision gifting Palace a lead in first-half stoppage time through Kevin Phillips' penalty, there was no excusing their sorry second-half capitulation.
Two more for Phillips inside 90 seconds completed his hat-trick soon after the break and though substitute Jay Simpson scored his first goal since November to offer hope of a comeback, Wilfried Zaha completed the rout with an adroit Palace fourth. David Meyler's stoppage-time goal was merely academic.
Unlike the riches currently being mined at the KC with four straight wins, a third consecutive away defeat was a shuddering blow to the Tigers' ambitions of reaching the Premier League.
Down to third after Watford fought back to beat Sheffield Wednesday, City are now just a point ahead of a Palace side breathing down their necks from fourth. Only Cardiff and Leicester's failure to win offered any sort of hope on a bleak evening.
On a full night of Championship action, fourth playing host to second was the fixture capable of making noise far beyond the boundaries of SE27.
Palace, unbeaten at home since losing to Watford all the way back on August 18, were the side playing catch-up, but a carefree Bruce chose to stand toe-to-toe with a host that could boast a prolific return of 41 goals from 17 Selhurst Park fixtures.
Keeping faith with the same attack-minded side that had picked apart Birmingham three days earlier at the KC, Bruce was keen to fight fire with fire against the club he acrimoniously split from after just 18 games in 2001.
Although City's start was far more encouraging than the opening stages of their previous away game where three goals were leaked inside eight calamitous minutes at Bolton, it was the home side that held the greatest early threat.
The Tigers were breathing uncomfortably as early as the fourth minute. Jacob Butterfield's free-kick offered Stockdale a simple collection but when he fumbled under minimal pressure, it needed Ahmed Elmohamady to block Peter Ramage's goalbound effort. An offside flag eventually called time on an awkward scramble.
Zaha, the youngster Bruce calls the Championship's "outstanding talent," was next to threaten when burrowing a hole into City's box. A drilled cross was again spilled by Stockdale but Jack Hobbs was alert to clear.
With a miserly ball retention and a willing patience, the territorial advantage belonged to Palace. City, meanwhile, were asked to soak up pressure and were limited to only sporadic attacks. Robert Koren's shot over the bar would be as close as they came in the opening half.
The best chance of the first period was presented to Palace on the half hour mark. Meyler, falling short of his weekend standards in the holding midfield role, clumsily barged into Jonathan Williams and offered referee Mark Haywood few choices but to award a penalty.
Murray, English football's leading goalscorer this season, assumed responsibility only to find Stockdale back to his assured self when diving low to his right and pushing the spot-kick wide.
It was salvation for the Tigers but that would only last for 15 minutes.
Pressure from the home side in first-half stoppage time brought another scrambled defence and when Hobbs dived in to block Murray's shot, a linesman's flag spotted a handball in front of the disbelieving away fans.
Protests from City counted for nothing and Phillips sidestepped the pitfall that tripped Murray when beating Stockdale from 12 yards – albeit with the keeper getting a hand to it.
If City were stung by the injustice, their alarming downfall early in the second half had faults lying much closer to home.
In 90 seconds of madness, Phillips was allowed to complete his hat-trick with unforgivable ease.
First came a burst from Zaha to bundle through two challenges before crossing for the veteran's scuffed second, and then Phillips was invited to shoot from 25 yards. A deflected strike over Stockdale soon showed City the error of their ways.
Where the second half had begun in search of a point, eight minutes later it had become damage limitation.
The Tigers continued their fight and grabbed a fleeting lifeline when Elmohamady's cross was headed in expertly by sub Jay Simpson.
Just as at Bolton, though, hopes of a comeback were quickly extinguished soon after the consolation.
"Zaha's too good for you" sung the Palace fans and so it proved when he danced around Paul McShane and showed wonderful composure to finish past Stockdale from a tight angle.
There was still time for Meyler to grab a close-range header from Brady's cross but nothing could mask the Tigers' failings.
• Gallery: Hull City at Crystal Palace in pictures