Emotions are raw at John Sillett's home in Balsall Common following the sad news that his great friend and mentor Jimmy Hill passed away a week before Christmas. John and his wife Jean, who taught Jimmy to ride, had been close friends of JH for over 50 years and his death has hit them both hard. John is confined to the house whilst recovering from major heart surgery a few weeks ago and the sad news from Sussex set the tears flowing in the Sillett household that weekend.
John recalls that he first met Jimmy in the late 1950s when he was a senior player at Chelsea and Jimmy was the raw but keen chairman of the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), the players union. Hill wanted to know why there were only two Chelsea players in the PFA and John organised for JH to talk to the players, most of whom signed up after an inspiring speech from the bearded one.
Chelsea had a fine side in those days, managed by Ted Drake, with talented youngsters like Jimmy Greaves, Terry Venables and Bobby Tambling alongside the experienced former City 'keeper Reg Matthews and John's elder brother, Peter, like John a full-back, who had won England caps.
John remembers his next encounter with Hill with joy: 'Tommy Docherty had taken over from Ted Drake and he wanted to make changes. One day I was sat at home when a Rolls Royce pulled up outside and Jimmy and the Coventry chairman Derrick Robins climbed out. They said they wanted me to sign for Coventry and they'd agreed a fee with The Doc. I didn't really want to drop to the Third Division but the two of them were very persuasive'.
That was in 1962 and the day Sillett arrived in Coventry a helicopter was manoeuvring the spire of the new cathedral into place and one of his earliest games was a friendly against Burnley to commemorate its opening. John was one of JH's first signings and took his place in the new Sky Blue shirt the following season as the JH revolution got under way.
John recalls: 'That period under JH was the happiest of my career. We had a great Cup run in 1963 and played Man United at Highfield Road and then won promotion the following season. The secret was a great dressing room – there were no rollockings from JH, if something went wrong he would put his arm around you and boost your confidence.'
Hill could however spring nasty surprises, John describes one such occasion: 'In the promotion season I cracked a knee cap at Christmas and my knee was in plaster. The team were playing at Reading and JH said to me, 'come along for the ride on the coach, it'll cheer you up'. We went to a hotel for lunch and as I wasn't playing I could ignore the alcohol ban so I wound up the lads by knocking back a few glasses of wine. We got to the ground and Jimmy says, 'you're playing'. Four players had a stomach bug and couldn't turn out so the physio Norman Pilgrim cuts the plaster off my leg and I go out with a fuzzy head. I don't remember who their left winger was but he didn't get much change from me and we got a good draw'.
'As a manager Jimmy did everything differently. He watched the opposition in advance, something we had never done at Chelsea. He introduced new training methods that were fun. He got us involved in the city – if anything was going on, we had to be there. All the stars would come to Coventry Theatre in those days and he took us there to meet people like Jimmy Tarbuck and Ken Dodd. Most of all he involved the wives, something I did later when I became manager. In 1964 when we hit a rocky patch in the promotion race he took all the wives to a top ladies shop in the city and paid for new outfits then arranged a dinner with the players and wives. It all helped the bond between the players and undoubtedly was a reason for our success.'
John left Highfield Road in 1966 but the great friends never lost touch. John recalls: 'He was a massive influence in my life. When I took my first manager's job at Hereford he came down and spent a day with me, giving me advice. Later when I was out of work he was the first on the phone to offer his support and help me find work.'
In 1987 during the FA Cup run JH took time out of his busy schedule to come to Ryton and offer advice to John and George Curtis as they steered the Sky Blues towards the club's first major Cup Final. On the day of the final no-one watching BBC's coverage was in any doubt who Jimmy was supporting and he was one of the first into the dressing room to congratulate the victors.
'George and I took so much from Jimmy that year. From the wives involvement to the trips away to Bournemouth down to the codes the players used for free-kicks, it was all geared to building a strong team ethic and it worked!'
John stayed in touch with Jimmy and Bryony during the last few years and last saw JH 2-3 months ago. 'Jimmy loved the musicals and we visited him at his care home. It was upsetting that he didn't recognise us but the Sound of Music came on the television and he sang along word-perfect to every song.'
'Jimmy was marvellous to me and one of my closest friends in football. He achieved so much for football in general and Coventry City in particular. I will miss him.'