I keep staring at it on the league table, but it still hasn’t really sunk in.
That’s partly down to me; it often takes me a while to take in that something has happened. Changes in the weather, for example – I tend to dress according to how the weather was the previous day, which often leaves me freezing or sweltering in inappropriate clothes.
(It’s the sartorial equivalent of the Two Ronnies’ Mastermind sketch, in which Ronnie Corbett answers the question before last.)
But the magnitude of what City have achieved over the last nine months is truly extraordinary.
First, there’s the simple fact that we’ve gone straight back up automatically. It happens a lot less often than you’d think – and I know, because I’ve checked.
From 1989 to 2008, sixty clubs were relegated from the second to the third tier of English football. (Not sixty different clubs – some made the descent more than once during that period, but you get what I mean.) How many of those do you reckon won automatic promotion the following season, bearing in mind that the maximum number is 39 (only one club was promoted automatically in 1994/95)?
The answer is just four: Birmingham in 1995, Swindon in 1996, Crewe in 2003 and Leicester last year.
That’s how difficult it is to achieve. And I’m glad I’ve only just found that out, because if I’d known at the start of the season I’d have been even less optimistic than I was.
(I was never as fatalistic about our prospects as expert pundit (cough) Mark Lawrenson, though. Here’s a reminder of what he said about us last August. It’s a mystery why ITV haven’t made a multi-million pound offer to lure him away from the BBC, isn’t it?)
To have done it with three games to spare is even more remarkable when you consider where we started from. Has any other team ever won a league after conceding seven goals in the opening game? (In retrospect, that’s yet another thing to thank Paul Lambert for.)
After the unlucky defeat against Leeds in October, we were eleven points behind them having played a game more.
And think of all the things that went against us during the season: the penalty we didn’t get at Milton Keynes, and the one they were wrongly given; Curtis Weston’s dive at Gillingham that won them a penalty and got Fraser Forster sent off; Forster’s scuffed goal kick at Elland Road in time added on; the appalling pitch at Colchester; Darel Russell’s red card against Southampton; the bizarre refereeing at Tranmere; and the astonishing inability of the ref to spot the World’s Clearest Handball Ever® in the home game against the Dons.
In the end, none of those things mattered. We’ve been that good.
For all his modest protests that the players deserve all the credit, the (P) that currently and briefly appears next to our name on the league table is a fitting tribute to Paul Lambert and his team.
When most managers join clubs, they talk about how it will take time for them to build their own team. Lambert never did. Obviously he knew that there were no funds to make wholesale changes, but he just got on with the job with the players he had, adding one or two along the way.
His team selection, tactics and substitutions have been almost spookily spot-on during the campaign (the one debatable slip being the use of the diamond formation at Orient). And he was big enough to accept that he might have been wrong about Wes and the Doc when he joined, and made them key figures in his team.
In my last column, I talked about the tricky task facing him this summer as he prepares for the Championship; how he will need to bring some new players in, but without losing the spirit and self-belief in the squad at the moment. His words after the Charlton game indicate that he is very aware of the balance he needs to strike: “We’ll try and give the current group a hand.” I think that puts it perfectly.
Praise is also due to the person who brought Lambert in.
Sitting in the waiting room at Carlisle rail station a few months ago (an experience as drab as it sounds, since Homebase hadn’t yet given it a makeover), I noticed a plaque honouring a signaller ‘whose quick thinking saved this station from a serious mishap’ in 1984. Perhaps a similarly-worded plaque should be put up outside David McNally’s office.
Coincidentally, I spotted a plaque at Reading station on the way to the Swindon game which reminded me of Bryan Gunn’s removal. It had been mounted in memory of one Henry West, who was swept away from a platform by a whirlwind in 1840:
“Sudden the change,
I in a moment fell and had not time
To bid my friends farewell.
Yet hushed be all complaint,
‘Tis sweet, ‘tis blest…”
(I haven’t yet found a plaque appropriate to Paul Lambert or the team, and to be honest I’m not going to go looking for one. The sight of a middle-aged man wandering around rail stations with a notebook and pen is likely to give a deeply unfavourable impression.)
It really has been a great season. I wish we’d never been relegated last year – but at the same time it’s been much more enjoyable than another ten months bumping around the bottom of the Championship would have been.
And by Saturday night I fully expect the league table to say Norwich (C).
Champions. Clear champions.