We talk to the Coventry legend ahead of today’s Checkatrade Trophy final
JOHN Sillett saw Coventry City play for the first time in 18 months last week. Today his memories will go back even further, 30 years to a sunny May day and one of the best FA Cup finals ever.
“To hear people say that it was one of the best finals...I can’t say that because they'll say I'm biased. But it was some match, wasn't it?” says Sillett. “Some day.”
Coventry, massive underdogs, beat Spurs 3-2 with an extra-time Gary Mabbutt own goal.
“The atmosphere, everything about it,” says Sillett, now 80, of that final. “The football was right, both sides scored goals and, to the very end, you were biting your nails: who is going to win it? It really was wonderful.”
This afternoon, Coventry are back and play Oxford United in the Checkatrade Trophy final.
Sillett will be in the Royal Box this time, a guest of honour, not down on the touchline.
He was managing the club in combination with another Sky Blue hero, George Curtis, at the time of the Cup final.
“It will be impossible not to think back to the final,” admits Sillett. “To come out of that tunnel… deafening it was, a deafening roar.
“That was a shock to me. What a noise. Suddenly, you are walking out there and you are thinking ‘Christ, I wish I was playing’. That's what I thought. I never played on it.
“There’s a funny story. David Pleat was the Tottenham manager and we were good mates. He looked at me as we were coming out and said ‘John, I just thought I’d tell you this before we start. We’ve never been beaten at Wembley’.
“I thought a minute and then said, ‘David, that’s funny nor have we’.”
That victory over Spurs, who were going for their third FA Cup win in six years, still stands as Coventry’s only major trophy in the club’s 133 years.
The Sky Blues are battered Black and Blue these days.
They are only days away from relegation to League Two and their Sisu owners seem to be at loggerheads with everyone, to the benefit of no-one.
They are on their fourth manager this season but, as Sillett saw for himself last Saturday in a 1-0 win over Bristol Rovers, the latest, Mark Robins, is making an impression.
Robins saved Alex Ferguson’s job at Manchester United with a winner against Nottingham Forest on the way to winning the 1990 FA Cup.
But, with Coventry bottom of League One, 11 points from safety pre-weekend with just six games left, there’s not enough time for Robins to work a miracle.
“Saturday was the first time I'd been for about 18 months. I thought I’d go and see them before Wembley because I’ve got people asking questions about what I think will happen in the final,” explains Sillett.
“I was quite impressed. I thought they played good football and the keeper (Lee Burge) did ever so well.
“I thought they look a side that needs a little more fitness, which is what Mark has said, but compared to what it was...it was awful before. “Mark Robins will do a good job there. He’s made an impact already. It’s not a case of putting diesel in a petrol tank. It’s a case of ‘we’ve got the right fuel in, let’s go, let’s go and do the business’. “I was more than pleasantly surprised. What I saw before... honestly I wanted to get up and walk away. It was embarrassing. If they can only win that trophy – and I know it's not going to be easy, but they could – what a start for next season.
“They will get relegated. They are not going to get out of that, are they? We’ve got to be honest.
“But then they can say ‘Right, we have won a cup, we’ve now got the confidence and we can go out and play against anyone’.”
Central defenders Nathan Clarke, signed by one of Robins’ predecessors, Russell Slade (manager No 3), and Farrend Rawson, on loan from Derby, impressed Sillett but both are cup-tied and miss the final.
Robins has led Coventry to
successive wins which is almost Barcleona-like for the Sky Blues this season.
They have had back-to-back victories only once before, in October under Mark Venus (manager No 2), and, if they make it three on the bounce today, that will be their best run for 17 months.
“I wasn’t looking forward to going but when I got there, at least you are watching something that looked as though it was organised,” says Sillett. “It looks to me that they’ve got a chance in the final.
“Mark and his staff have done a great job. They have a pattern of play which they know they can keep to.
“I just wish at times they would have put their foot on it and slowed it down a little bit. That is to come. What I saw I was very pleased with. It’s a shame those two centre-halves won’t be playing, though. They did look solid.”
After he’d won the FA Cup, Sillett’s mission was to transform Coventry from annual relegation fighters into an established topflight club.
He spent £800,000 on David Speedie and kept the Sky Blues in and around the top ten until he left in 1990.
“We were close to it, weren’t we?” recalls Sillett. “What happened was George and I fell out. He sacked Ian MacFarlane, my chief scout, without telling me. You don’t do things like that.
“I think George got jealous in the end. We were doing something he thought wasn't possible. We had Manchester United, Manchester City underneath us. You look at that, it was some feat. Look at it now. But what we did, that’s the potential of the club.”
Sillett and his wife Jean will be driven to Wembley by their grandson.
A former Coventry director and family friend, John Clarke, persuaded him to go to the Ricoh Arena and watch a game again and club chairman Tim Fisher has laid on the VIP treatment for today.
The Sky Blues are only tenants these days at what used to be their stadium. Wasps rugby union club are the owners and it is a strange experience going to a football game at the Wasp-branded Ricoh.
The football club have six hours before a match and six hours afterwards to get in and out for a game, all their branding, shirts for sale, all set up and then gone again.
“It must be hard for the players,” says Sillett. “It’s their big working day and you are seeing other things. All you can hear and see is Wasps, everybody is talking about the Wasps. So it’s about time we started talking about the football.”
Next season is likely to be the club’s last at the Ricoh and they are expected to move to the Butts Park Arena in the city, ironically where Coventry Rugby Club play.
There is work to do before the small, inadequate Butts stadium is ready, especially if the Sky Blues are booming again, as the ground won’t even come near taking the near-12,000 that watched Coventry last Saturday.
There will be 43,000 Coventry fans at Wembley today and Sillett says: “Tim Fisher, bless him. I know I’ve given him loads of stick, but he couldn’t have been nicer last Saturday. He gave a little speech thanking me for coming back to watch them. “He’s got me in the Royal box at Wembley. It’s on his invitation.” There’s a wheelchair needed as well. Sillett has had three operations this year. “I’m gradually getting there,” he said. “I've had a heart operation. They have put a new valve in, and I’ve had a hip operation which hasn't come right yet and I had a pacemaker put in. “I can’t walk very far. It’s the hip and the heart, a combination of them. I get out of breath very quickly. “Being back at Wembley is going to be emotional. The lump will come in the throat when I see them walking out. The old heart will need to keep going. To be truthful, I don’t think the heart is all that great. The valve...I may have made the wrong decision. “It was a plastic thing to put in or a pig’s valve. I just said to the surgeon, ‘Come on, you are the man, you tell me’. ‘Go with the pig’s’ he said. So I grunt a lot now. And eat apples. I think I’m a Coventry Black Spot.”
GREAT DAY: John Sillett, left, and his Coventry City team celebrate winning the FA Cup against Spurs BACKING: Mark Robins
CUP KING: Sillett laps up the Sky Blues’ FA Cup success against Spurs in 1987