Special Feature
John Sillett - Wembley win was something special

By Steve Carpenter 10/05 Updated: 24/05 10:40

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Buy photos » Sillett and Curtis salute the Sky Blues supporters inside Wembley. (S)

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Coventry City’s famous FA Cup triumph over Tottenham Hotspur, the Observer has teamed up with Coventry City’s Former Players’ Association (CCFPA) to re-capture the memories of players, managers and fans from the club’s greatest day on May 16, 1987.

As our special weekly series draws to a close next week, we caught up with the man who guided the Sky Blues to their first, and currently only, piece of major silverware, John Sillett.

Many Sky Blues supporters will have their own theory about how the Sky Blues managed to upstage Spurs in one of the biggest FA Cup upsets of all time.

But Sillett recalls his most famous masterstroke just a few days before the final that played an important part in the club's most historic moment.

"I remember walking out of the tunnel alongside David Pleat and his coaching staff," revealed Sillett.

"Pleat turned to me as we made our way towards the pitch and said ‘we’ve been here seven times before you know, and never lost’.

"I quickly replied, 'we’ve been here before too and never lost’. He walked away laughing.

"I think one of the best things I pulled off was that we got a chance to train down at Wembley a few days before the cup final.

"Only two or three of our players had ever been to Wembley before so I felt it was important for all of our players to experience it.

"I wanted them to get a feel of the pitch, to step inside Wembley and get a sense of what it would be like to play at the home of English Football.

"I spoke to the FA who said it was down to the groundsman and although he said no at first, he eventually agreed.

"We played a few games of 5-a-side on the pitch and we were even allowed to walk up the steps as if we had won the cup.

"It was a great experience for the players and that certainly helped them during the big occasion."

The Sky Blues got off to the worst possible start on their first visit to Wembley after Clive Allen headed Spurs ahead after just two minutes.

And although Sillett admits he was furious with his side for allowing Allen in, he knew Coventry's name was on the cup heading into extra-time.

"A few players call it my ‘Churchillian speech’ after 90 minutes. I told my players to look over at the Spurs team.

"They were knackered and many were receiving treatment. I told them to look up in the crowd and spot their wives and family. This was their moment.

"I then told them to get on the spot and start running to show the Spurs players they were not tired and we were better than them. They looked shattered.

"My team talk centred around how we were representing the fans, we were not thinking about Spurs and we were not frightened of them.

"My initial team talk had centred around stopping Clive Allen, but how do we stop him?

"They had some great players in the midfield with Chris Waddle, Glenn Hoddle and Ossie Ardiles could play a bit too, but we couldn’t just let them have the freedom of the park.

"I knew who my team was two weeks before the final. I could have found out the opposition and changed things around to suit their formation, but I thought no, let them try and figure us out.

"We most certainly didn’t want to give away an early goal, we needed to be level or 1-0 up after 20 minutes.

"Looking back I’m glad I didn’t forget anything. I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself if we had been through all the preparation for the match and then I went and forgot to tell the players something.

"I didn’t want to forget something and then at the end it would have been too late.

"I didn’t want to miss anything in any of my team talks and I’m pleased looking back that I didn’t miss anything out.

"It was a wonderful feeling lifting the cup. That win was a reward for our supporters who had been superb throughout the whole season and they are still a credit to the football club."

Sillett started his coaching career at Bristol City and after successful spell at Hereford United he was invited to join the Sky Blues by former manager Bobby Gould.

After an initial stint as coach, Sillett was offered the role as first team coach by director George Curtis at the end of the 1985/86 season and that was the beginning of a perfect partnership.

"I wanted to be first team coach and handle all the on-field matters, team selection, tactics, buying players and George was responsible for the other side of things, because I’ve sat in on board meetings before and there is always someone who will try and stick their nose in even though they don’t know anything about the game.

"I always used to stop training all the time ask players if they were enjoying the session and then on a Saturday I wasn’t afraid to go into the changing room at half-time and bite their heads off if something wasn’t going our way!

"I was always a very superstitious person. I got the players believing and I think that took the pressure off them a bit.

"George (Curtis) had booked the hotel by Wembley, but I chose a hotel by the Thames, opposite a chapel, and of course we saw a bride the morning of the cup final, so it's just little things like that which relieve the pressure.

"We were defensively very strong with a very good back four in Brian Burrows, Greg Downs, Trevor Peake and Brian Kilcline.

"Borrows was probably the best right back in the country and was on the verge of an England call-up before he got injured.

"We had Cyrille Regis up front with Keith Houchen who was magic at times.

"Dave Bennett was outstanding in midfield, as was Neil Pickering on the wing, then there was Micky Gynn and Lloyd McGrath gave us a good balance.

"I also wasn’t afraid of bringing players through from the youth team because I knew they had what it takes to compete.

"The young players at the club have Sky Blue blood in their veins. They will wear the shirt with pride and I was gutted they Dean Emerson and Borrows missed the final through injury."

Before Sillett joined the Sky Blues as first team coach, his name was already cemented into Coventry folk-law for being part of what is now know as the Jimmy Hill Revoluton.

Hill guided the club from the third tier of English football to the top during the 1960's and Sillett revealed he was hugely influenced by Hill.

"I learnt a lot from the great Jimmy Hill during my time as a player for the club.

"He was a very special managers, who installed a great team spirit within the team and it was a wonderful period for the club as we moved from the old Third Division to the top flight.

"Jimmy always had great ideas like taking the wives out and having a meal every year which always worked.

"I used to take the players away before the FA Cup games to ease the pressure, just like Jimmy did back then.

"He was one of the main reasons why I came back to Coventry.

"I'd resigned from Hereford and I was enjoying time with my wife and breeding our horses but Jimmy persuaded me to come back to Coventry as chief scout.

"When I first took over I said to a reporter that we would win the cup this year in my first season as manager, but I meant the Leamington Hospital Cup which we had won every year!

"It was a joy to be part of the Jimmy Hill revolution as it is known, but to win a major trophy was something special and I'm even more proud to have won it with Coventry."

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Buy photos» The celebrations begin for Sillett and Curtis at the final whistle as Spurs manager Pleat looks on. (S)

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