JOHN SILLETT

We talk to the Coven­try leg­end ahead of to­day’s Check­a­trade Tro­phy fi­nal

The Football League Paper - - NEWS - By John Wragg

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.

Deafen­ing

“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.

Mis­sion

“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.

Op­er­a­tions

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

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