Mark Robins is the latest in a long line of Sky Blue Supremos, the men who have tried to bring success to City. In this series first published in matchday programme PUSB, writer Rob Mason reflects on the highs and lows on those who have occupied the hot-seat.
In this edition, Rob Mason profiles John Sillett...
Back in 1987 Coventry won the FA Cup after a most dramatic and exciting cup run.
Sillett worked in tandem with George Curtis in the cup winning campaign. While in no way does this focus on Sillett undermine Curtis’ contribution, it was Sillett took the lead on team affairs, who proudly led the team out beneath the old twin towers and when the final went to extra time it was Sillett who most publicly delivered the team-talk that led to Brian Kilcline lifting the trophy a little over half an hour later.
George Curtis played in 538 games for City and had stepped in to take over from Don Mackay in April 1986. Sillett had also played for City but had played over 400 fewer games for the club. While Curtis had legendary status as a player, ‘Snoz’ had done well in 128 games in the mid-sixties but would never make any supporter’s all time XI. The pair had been team-mates –even playing alongside each other in the FA Cup quarter-final in 1963, lost to eventual winners Manchester United.
24 years on from that fabulous cup run from third division City, Curtis and Sillett again combined, this time to win the trophy and give Coventry City the greatest moment in the club’s entire history.
Sillett was 51 when he won the cup. Born on July 20 1936 in Normansland in Hampshire. He grew up at ‘The Lamb Inn’, a hostelry where his father Charles was the publican. Sillett senior had been a full-back with Southampton from 1931 to ’38 and evidently that talent ran on to his two sons. The Silletts were something of a Saints triumvirate as John’s brother Peter also played for the south coast club. Three years older than John, Peter started at The Dell (Southampton’s ground of the time) as a junior in 1950, going on to play 59 league games for them. John also signed for Southampton as an amateur before signing for Chelsea in 1954 although he had not made a first team breakthrough at his first club.
By then big brother was plying his trade for Chelsea. Making his debut on New Year’s Day 1957, John Sillett went on to play 102 times for The Blues, scoring once, and gaining a representative honour, playing for The Football League. Peter Sillett won three caps for England, all in May 1955, straight after winning the league title with The Blues.
In April 1962 Jimmy Hill signed John Sillett for a fee of £3,000. Playing the final two games of that 1961-62 season, (His debut being in a home defeat by Hull on April 28), Sillett became a regular member of the side, scoring his first goal with the club’s final strike of his first full season. Having missed just one game of the 1963-64 promotion campaign a slipped disc led to Sillett becoming a fringe player at the higher second division level. He played his last game for the club in a home defeat by Charlton almost four years to the day on from his debut. That late season defeat saw City miss out on promotion by a point to his first club Southampton, Sillett subsequently moving on to Plymouth Argyle in July 1966, the month England won the World Cup.
Still in the same division as City, Sillett didn’t debut for Argyle until late November against Bolton, thereby having missed both early season games against a Coventry side destined for the top. Plymouth though were heading in the opposite direction, finishing bottom a year later, Sillett having played the 240th and final league game of his career on April 13th 1968, an away defeat at Bristol City.
Ashton Gate would actually be Sillett’s next port of call. Linking up with Alan Dicks, with whom he had played at Chelsea and for at Coventry; where Dicks was assistant manager, Sillett coached The Robins until he took on his first managerial position with Hereford United in the summer of 1974, succeeding Colin Addison who had brought them into the league not long after their sensational FA Cup humbling of Newcastle United. Oddly when Snoz returned to Hereford in May 1991, he again took over from Addison.
In his first spell at Edgar Street, Sillett’s side stormed to the third division (Now League One) title, an additional personal accolade being Third Division Manager of the Year. Having been 12th the season before it continued the upward climb for a club who had thereby achieved two promotions in their first four seasons as a league club. They couldn’t sustain it of course and were immediately relegated and half way through the following season he left the club.
Gordon Milne brought him back to Highfield Road in 1979 as chief scout and later youth coach but that initial spell on the coaching staff was short-lived as the team were having a difficult time. However, Snoz was later returned under the auspices of Don Mackay in 1985 and by May of the following year Sillett took on the role as chief coach alongside Managing Director George Curtis, following the parting of the ways with Mackay.
Despite an opening day defeat at West Ham, Coventry didn’t lose again until October as they improved massively from the previous season. A narrow escape from relegation was replaced with a very healthy 10th placed finish, a decent League Cup run only ended in an Anfield replay with Liverpool and a triumphant FA Cup campaign.
Stoke were the third club to fall victims to the Sky Blues. A Micky Gynn goal put out The Potters on their own patch in the fifth round. By then Bolton had been beaten at Highfield Road and – sensationally – Manchester United had been knocked out at Old Trafford courtesy of a Keith Houchen goal that wouldn’t even be his most famous of the cup run.
Houchen got two as Sheffield Wednesday were beaten away in the quarter-final before the same Hillsborough stadium hosted a semi-final that saw Leeds beaten in extra time, Houchen again amongst the scorers. Two years later of course a Hillsborough semi-final would be the scene of the country’s worst ever football disaster. No-one will forget that but thankfully these were happier times. Having won twice at ‘Wednesday’ Coventry moved on to Wembley.
Cup final opponents Spurs had narrowly lost a seven goal humdinger at Highfield Road at Christmas but the cup final was even more thrilling. While City had finished 10th in the table, Tottenham had been third and with their cup pedigree and diamond lights of Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle were favourites for the final. Not that John Sillett would subscribe to such pessimism, he had been insisting City would win the cup since the early stages.
Backed by no less a ‘pundit’ than Old Moore’s Almanac which predicted a team in blue and white stripes would win the cup, the spirit of the Sky Blues was there for the world to see as they twice came from behind to win the trophy in extra time. Houchen’s goal with a diving header remains the iconic moment of the final in which Dave Bennett netted City’s first and Spurs’ Gary Mabbutt deflected Lloyd McGrath’s ball into his own net.
Not only did John Sillett guide Coventry to the FA Cup, he slipped seamlessly into the manager’s seat at the climax of the season with George Curtis focussing again on a more administrative role.
Always fond of providing a quirk, the fixture list produced a fascinating first home match for Sillett the following year: Spurs. To rub salt into Hotspur’s wounds Coventry won again. By then Sillett had already taken his team back to Wembley, this time for the Charity Shield, lost by a single goal to Everton.
While Sillett’s City contested the Charity Shield there was to be no European football on the back of the cup win, due to the ban on English clubs following the Heysel Stadium disaster at the European Cup final of two years earlier. Mechelen of Belgium would beat their Dutch counter-parts Ajax in Athens in the final of a competition cup-winners Coventry were not allowed to participate in.
Although the domestic cup runs were brief in Coventry’s season as cup-holders, despite the fact that they were a trophy-winning side and therefore a scalp to the rest of the league, under Sillett City did well to repeat their 10th placed finish of the cup-winning season, only two of the last 16 games being lost.
Commendably those back to back 10th places were improved upon in 1988-89 when an excellent seventh place was achieved. In contrast 12th the following year seemed a setback but City were never looking over their shoulders at the wrong end of the table despite only winning one of their last 10 games. Frustratingly the penultimate victory of the season was a 4-2 win at Forest less than a month after losing 2-1 on aggregate to the same side in the semi-final of the League Cup when there was a realistic hope of a second major trophy in three seasons coming to Highfield Road. These were halcyon days for the club under John Sillett.
Sadly, in football all good things come to an end. His last two FA Cup ties in charge brought awful defeats against Sutton and Northampton after which bad start to the 1989-90 season saw Snoz relieved of his duties in mid-November, to be replaced by Terry Butcher.
Six months later Sillett was back in a hot-seat, again at Hereford. A good start saw his side fourth going into November but with only five league wins after the turn of the year and finishing with five consecutive defeats the club dropped to 17th. Sillett left at the end of the season, bringing down the curtain on his managerial career just five years after winning the cup. He had however brought a cup encore to Hereford, taking the third division outfit to the fourth round and a meeting at Brian Clough’s Forest.
Aged only 56 Sillett was largely finished with football, save for being asked by Sven-Goran Eriksson to do some scouting for the national side. Always a smiling and lively personality with a deep understanding of the game, his move into television with Central TV was almost inevitable.
In 2012, Sillett was made Life President of the Sky Blues and continues to attend home games in support of the team - and spoke on the pitch at Wembley prior to the Checkatrade Trophy Final in 2017 to help rouse the Sky Blues fans.
Undoubtedly though, having played for the club and been a key figure in its greatest day, John Sillett’s name is as indelibly etched into Coventry’s history as the club’s name was engraved on the trophy on that fabulous day just over three decades ago.