Neil Warnock likened his Cardiff players to a rash that simply will not go away. Despite the unflattering comparison it was an apt description for a squad who stand a single game away from returning to the Premier League.
“Everyone keeps expecting us to fall away at some point during the season,” said Warnock, after a goal in each half from his captain, Sean Morrison, propelled them to within touching distance of the top flight. “We’ve had set-backs along the way but this set of lads just don’t know when they’re beaten.”
A victory built on the attributes that have served Cardiff so well this season – character, determination and a never-say-die attitude allied to a touch of quality – leaves Warnock close to a record eighth career promotion with his side in pole position to follow Wolves straight into the Premier League. Victory at home to Reading in their final match next Sunday will confirm their place back in the top flight after a four-year absence. Anything less leaves the way open for Fulham, who trail them by a single point and who travel to Birmingham on the back of a 23-game unbeaten run.
“Next Sunday will be massive,” Warnock said. “I don’t think it’s sunk in yet what will be at stake but both us and Fulham have got hard games because Birmingham and Reading each need a point to be safe.”
Fulham were a distant 18 points behind Cardiff at the outset of their impressive sequence of results but, despite a recent stutter, they have maintained a consistent run of their own since the turn of the year. They replaced their promotion rivals as the best of the rest behind Nuno Espírito Santo’s champions with victory against a poor Hull side who had only recently averted the threat of consecutive relegations.
Cardiff had shown little in terms of attacking threat before Morrison put them in front, with the centre-back’s deadlock-breaking goal owing much to pure desire as he rose highest among a melee of players to head home an inviting Joe Ralls corner in the 32nd minute.
Promotion and relegation: how they stand
Champions: Manchester City
Europe: Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham are favourites for the top four with Chelsea in fifth. Arsenal could still reach the Champions League by winning the Europa League. Burnley look certain to finish seventh and return to Europe after 51 years away.
Relegation: West Brom are now five points from safety with two games to play. Stoke are just two points above the Baggies, while Southampton are now a point behind Swansea, who they play in their penultimate match. West Ham and Huddersfield are still looking over their shoulders.
Automatic promotion: Cardiff need a home win over Reading to seal promotion, with Fulham hoping to pounce on any slip-up as they face Birmingham on the final day.
Play-offs: Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, and Derby leading the race to join them. Preston can still force their way into the top six.
Relegation: Sunderland will finish bottom with Burton, Bolton and Barnsley separated by a point. Barnsley can secure survival with a win at Derby on the final day, while Burton go to Preston and Bolton host Nottingham Forest.
Automatic promotion: Wigan and Blackburn (pictured) have sealed automatic promotion and will now battle for the title. A point at Doncaster on the final day will realistically be enough for the Latics.
Play-offs: Shrewsbury and Rotherham, with Charlton, Scunthorpe and Plymouth battling for the other two places. The latter two meet in midweek.
Relegation: Bury and MK Dons are down while Walsall’s late winner has left Northampton all but mathematically relegated. Oldham and Rochdale are fighting to avoid the final spot; they face Northampton and Charlton respectively on the last day.
Champions: Accrington Stanley
Automatic promotion: Luton Town, Wycombe (pictured)
Play-offs: Exeter City, Notts County and two from Coventry, Lincoln and Mansfield, who need to beat Crawley on the last day to have any chance of sneaking in.
Relegation: Barnet‘s win at Morecambe took the race for survival to the final day. If the Bees beat already-relegated Chesterfield, they can leapfrog Morecambe if the Shrimps lose at Coventry.
National League: Macclesfield Town have secured the only automatic promotion spot, with one from Tranmere, Sutton, Boreham Wood, Aldershot, Ebbsfleet and AFC Fylde to come up via the play-offs.
Premiership: Celtic can seal the title by beating Rangers on Sunday. Relegation looks a straight fight between Partick Thistle and Ross County.
Championship: St Mirren are champions, with Livingston, Dundee United and Dunfermline set for promotion/relegation play-offs. Brechin are relegated.
League One: Ayr United are champions with Raith, Alloa and Arbroath joining Dumbarton in the play-offs. Albion are relegated.
League Two: Montrose are champions with Peterhead, Stirling and Stenhousemuir joining Queen’s Park in the play-offs. Cowdenbeath face a relegation play-off with Cove Rangers or Spartans.
Junior Hoilett almost doubled the advantage with a shot well saved by Allan McGregor in the eight minutes of first-half stoppage time due in part to a serious-looking knee injury to Aron Gunnarsson, which threatens the Iceland midfielder’s participation in this summer’s World Cup.
Fraizer Campbell, who was part of the Cardiff squad that won promotion to the top flight in 2013, spurned an early chance for the hosts, who were anaemic going forward. A second goal for the visitors looked more likely, McGregor saving well at his near post immediately after the break to deny Nathaniel Mendez-Laing’s follow-up from a narrow angle after initially blocking a header from Callum Paterson.
Hull belatedly pressed for an equaliser, but were unable to find a way past a well-drilled backline where Sol Bamba and Morrison again led by example. Victory was sealed 10 minutes from time, the ubiquitous Morrison implausibly finding himself unmarked in the area at the culmination of a swift Mendez-Laing-inspired counterattack to sweep home his seventh goal of the season, leaving Warnock contemplating his own small place in EFL history.
“Sean must have set off from our six-yard box for the goal,” he said. “I wondered where the hell he was going when we were trying to protect a lead but it was a stunning finish. I’d love us to go on and finish the job now. We’re not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’ve told the lads they’re like a rash, but I wouldn’t swap them for anything.”
In front of a rapidly emptying arena, Hull’s post-match lap of appreciation proved a rather sombre affair, given this has been a campaign to forget. “You have to give Cardiff enormous credit,” Nigel Adkins said, his side seven points above the bottom three. “For them to get into the Premier League would be a massive achievement.”