Chelsea Football Club is greatly saddened to learn of the passing of our former full-back and captain John Sillett at the age of 85.
John played 102 games for the Blues in the period between Ted Drake’s Football League championship-winning team and the young, flamboyant side that emerged in the early 1960s under Tommy Docherty.
Standing six foot tall, he was a classic hard-tackling and muscular full-back in the days when those were the key requirements for the position. He was also very quick, capable of running the 100 yards in the Olympic qualifying time, which was 9.9 seconds, and a firm striker of the ball.
Hampshire-born John was playing as an amateur at Southampton when both he and his older brother Peter moved to Chelsea in May 1953. Peter was the most expensive full-back of the time. John was close to turning 17.
John recalled when speaking to the Chelsea magazine many years later: ‘When he [Drake] became Chelsea’s manager and he signed Pete, he came along to our pub and asked what I did. I help out with the washing up, I told him.
‘Do you play football?’
‘Yeah, I’ve actually got a match tomorrow for Wiltshire schoolboys.’
‘You’d better come up with Pete for a trial, then.’
Within a year, John had earned himself a professional contract although he would break into the first team later than Peter who was a significant member of Drake’s side that won the league title in 1954/55.
John made his debut on New Year’s Day 1957, away at Manchester United. It was in the 1958/59 season that he established himself as a regular choice, frequently playing on the left of the defence with his brother on the right.
‘I could certainly tackle and I could handle myself okay,’ was John’s assessment of himself. ‘I used to have a good laugh, though. I wasn’t a miserable chap, I was the happy-go-lucky type. My brother was a different character completely, as well as a different footballer. He was a class act, he was brilliant. I was as good a trainer as there was at the football club because I knew if I wasn’t fully fit and training hard, I wouldn’t get anywhere.’
The experienced championship team had broken up and Sillett’s Chelsea era was the team known as Drake’s Ducklings, nicknamed in the fashion of the time. These were the years of Manchester United’s Busby Babes.
The Chelsea version was youthful but wildly inconsistent with the results skewed by the goalscoring genius of the emerging Jimmy Greaves up front. John became one of Greavsie’s greatest friends and indeed spoke to us to pay tribute when the England international passed away in September.
Frank Blunstone was another great mate, and many years later they still called each other by their respective nicknames from their playing days.
‘We called him Snoz! Because he’s got a big nose,’ Blunstone explained. ‘He takes it well – in fact, if I didn’t call him Snoz he’d say, “What’s up with you?”’
John scored one goal for Chelsea, a curler from the edge of the box in a 7-0 thrashing of Doncaster Rovers in the League Cup. That, his penultimate season with us, was when he made his most appearances – 32 – and by this stage he was captain of the side.
He moved on from Stamford Bridge in April 1962, near the start of the Docherty era with two new full-backs, Ken Shellito and Eddie McCreadie, taking over. John joined Coventry for £3000 where he would later make a big contribution to their history, before finishing his playing days at Plymouth Argyll.
Having moved into management at Hereford United, John returned to Coventry where, as recently appointed joint manager with George Curtis, he guided them to FA Cup final victory over Tottenham in 1987, in what is widely considered one of the most entertaining finals of all time. It remains the one piece of major silverware won by Coventry. He also managed them into the upper reaches of the top-flight table.
In later years, John was one of our former players who attended the pre-Christmas Annual Lunch at Stamford Bridge.
All at Chelsea Football Club send our deepest condolences to John’s family and friends.