John Sillett: Sports reporter Steve Clamp pays tribute to ex-Coventry City boss who died in lockdown

As family and friends gather to honour the life of former Sky Blues boss John Sillett, ITV Central's Sport Reporter Steve Clamp looks back on his career. Credit: PA Images

Some football managers are indelibly linked to certain teams. At Nottingham Forest you have Brian Clough. At Liverpool it’s Bob Paisley and at Manchester United there’s Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson. 

At Coventry City two names tower above the rest. First, Jimmy Hill, who led the club to the top flight in the 1960’s and second you have John Sillett

Where John differed from all the other managers I just mentioned is that his time in charge of the club was relatively short. Less than five years. But he is proof, if it were ever needed, that quality matters more than quantity. 

When the former Chelsea (and Coventry) player took charge alongside George Curtis in 1986, little could they have known they were about to take the club on a journey which would culminate in its greatest ever success. 

But first, he and Curtis had just three games remaining of that season to save the club from relegation. They made it look easy, two wins enough for the first hurdle to be crossed. 

However, it would the following season that saw John and his team write the greatest chapter in the Coventry City history books.

A memorable FA Cup run saw the Sky Blues beat Leeds United 3-2 in the semi final.

Leeds had been favourites for that, but that was nothing compared to what awaited them in the final. 

Tottenham Hotspur were in their prime, they had won the FA Cup twice already in the 1980’s alone.

Coventry on the other hand had never, in their entire history, even made it to the final, let alone won it. 

The story of what unfolded is now part of FA Cup folklore. Put simply, many regard the 1987 FA Cup Final as the most thrilling of them all.

Two all after 90 minutes, it would take extra time to find a winner, and it was John Sillett’s Coventry who came out on top, an own goal from Gary Mabbutt leaving Tottenham stunned, and for the first and only time since, Coventry City were winners of domestic football’s most illustrious Cup competition. 

John Sillett, far left, with his Coventry City side as they celebrate their 1987 FA Cup win Credit: PA

The TV footage, shown to a huge audience on both ITV and the BBC, captured the emotion felt by the team and by John at their astonishing achievement. The shots of the jubilant manager running towards the cheering fans, Cup held high is enough to make even the most casual viewer beam with delight. 

This was Coventry’s day,  John Sillett and the team had master-mined one of the FA Cup's biggest shocks.

That success alone would warrant Sillett’s place among the hearts of all Coventry City fans. 

But that wasn't his only achievement, the following season he led the club to a 7th placed finish, their highest in a decade. 

And even after his four year reign as Coventry manager was be brought to an end, John's association with the club would go on. His blood was, by now, running Sky Blue. 

He continued being seen at home games right up until his failing health made that too difficult. I remember John telling me how, upon arriving at the ground, fans would still clap and cheer, even those far too young to have first hand memory of 87'.

And that brings me to my memories of John. In news we rely on a lot of goodwill from contributors, to give us their time, often at short notice and without financial recompense.

The only reward for them? The knowledge that their interview might enrich and inform the lives of those who are watching. 

John Sillett said the memory of cup final day was a treasured one. Credit: ITV News Central

In the near 20 years I covered sport in the Midlands, I don't ever remember John saying he was 'unavailable'. And it's fair to say I called him a fair few times.

His company was always warm, his memories of those glory days always filled with joy, and each time we spoke, he'd find another tail to tell that I'd not heard before.

In fact, it never felt like interviewer and interviewee, just two friends with a love for football having a chat. 

His demeanour and the hospitality of his dear wife Jean, always made me feel a welcome guest, rather than a busy reporter chasing a story.

I'll miss John, Coventry City will miss John, the world of football will miss John.

He is gone, but the memories of a kind, joyful man, and of what he achieved in 1987 will not fade.