Huddersfield Town take on Manchester City in the FA Cup fifth round today. Richard Sutcliffe interviews a former hero of both clubs, Mark Lillis.
MARK LILLIS has had many memorable times during a career in football spanning 40 years, but one particular weekend stands out.
With good reason, too, as there can not be many footballers who can look back on playing in both a Manchester derby and a Wembley final inside a little over 24 hours.
Throw in the fact almost 120,000 fans watched those back-to-back games, and that Lillis came within a whisker of completing the fastest hat-trick under the Twin Towers, it is no wonder that the third weekend of March, 1986, is so firmly etched in the memory of the 57-year-old.
“It is totally mad when you think about it now,” laughs Lillis when speaking to The Yorkshire Post ahead of today’s FA Cup fifth-round meeting at the John Smith’s Stadium between the two clubs who lay closest to his footballing heart.
“To play the Manchester derby at Old Trafford on the Saturday and then get straight on the bus to London for a Cup final the following day, it just wouldn’t happen today.
“Can you imagine what the current City players or Pep (Guardiola) would say about that?”
Football 30 or so years ago, of course, was very different to today. For a start, hooliganism was so rife that English clubs were banned from European competition following the Heysel disaster – which, in a roundabout way, is how Lillis and his Manchester City team-mates found themselves walking out at Wembley on March 23, 1986.
The Full Members’ Cup had been launched that season to – again, unbelievably, when judged by modern-day standards – provide clubs in the top two divisions with more football.
Crowds were poor in the early rounds, but, come the final between the Blues and Chelsea, the prospect of a day out at Wembley firmly caught the imagination of supporters.
The official attendance was given as 67,236, but the suggestion from those there is that up to 5,000 more fans gained admission by slipping through the turnstiles on an afternoon when it was pay on the day.
For Lillis, who had moved to Maine Road from Huddersfield Town the previous summer, and his City team-mates, it was their second bumper crowd in as many days after 51,274 had crammed into Old Trafford for the Manchester derby. United had raced into a two-goal lead, but Billy McNeill’s visitors fought back valiantly to bring the scores level.
“We got it back to 2-2 and then won a corner in the last minute,” recalls Lillis, speaking earlier this week in a cafe near his Huddersfield home.
“I’d started the game up front, but moved back to centre-half after Kenny Clements got carried off. We won the corner and I set off, only for Paul Power to grab my arm and ask what I was doing.
“I told him, ‘I’m off to get the winner in front of the Stretford End’. But he was having none of it and made me stay back, to ensure we got a point. We drew 2-2 and then got straight on to the bus for London.”
Back then, there were no warm-downs for players or instructions to re-fuel with the right sort of food within an hour of the final whistle. Instead, the City players had other ideas when it came to refreshment.
“The lads wanted a beer,” laughs Lillis. “Everyone was buzzing from the fightback so I was asked to go see if the gaffer would let us have a beer when we got to the hotel.
“I walked down the front and asked Billy if we could have one beer at the hotel. He went berserk. ‘We are not a pub team,’ was the gist of what he was saying. I looked round for a bit of support, but all the lads were either pretending to be asleep or hiding behind the seats.”
Having had to settle for a cup of tea on arrival in London, the City team awoke on Sunday morning eagerly looking forward to their Wembley date with Chelsea.
With six minutes of the final remaining, however, Lillis and his team-mates were heading for a humiliating defeat courtesy of David Speedie’s hat-trick and two goals from Colin Lee.
“I looked up at the big scoreboard and it read ‘5-1’,” says Lillis. “I remember thinking, ‘We can’t go back to Manchester now, we’ll never live this down’.”
Cue a remarkable fightback as Lillis netted twice either side of Doug Rougvie’s own goal, the Chelsea defender having turned Paul Simpson’s cross into his own net with Lillis breathing down his neck.
“I tried to claim a hat-trick because I got a touch, but the ball did go in off Rougvie,” he admits today. “Despite that, David Speedie came up afterwards. He’d scored a hat-trick for Chelsea and he said, ‘Do you want to cut the ball in half?’ I was tempted.”
Lillis’s time at Maine Road lasted just one season. Despite finishing 1985-86 as top scorer, he was sold to Derby County the following summer to raise funds for the cash-strapped club.
As a lifelong Blue who had been at the 1969 FA Cup final as a fan, leaving was tough. But his love for City has never dimmed, just as his feelings for Huddersfield Town remain as strong as ever.
“I owe Huddersfield a lot,” he says. “I signed for City as a schoolboy at 14,but was released two years later. My mum and dad said I had to get a job so I became a messenger boy at the Daily Express, who had a big office in Manchester back then.
“My job was to take messages between all the different departments – or, sometimes, I’d be told to go across the road to a pub all the journalists used and drag someone out because the deadline was approaching.
“While at the Express, I had trials at seven clubs. Huddersfield was the last one and, thankfully, they offered me an apprenticeship.”
Town’s faith was soon justified, Lillis helping the club to two promotions in his seven seasons at Leeds Road.
“The values instilled in me at Huddersfield were invaluable and set me up for life,” recalls Lillis, who later had four spells in caretaker charge of Town before leaving last May.
“Mick Buxton was superb for me. Most days, he would slaughter me. I had scored two in the first half one day and came in feeling pretty pleased with myself. But he ripped me apart, saying I hadn’t done this and hadn’t done that. ‘You’re like a leaf in the wind,’ was what he said to me.
“He told my dad years later that he did it on purpose. He saw me as being like the Incredible Hulk, I’d turn green because I was so angry. He felt I was a better player with that inside me.
“Mick knew I would go back out thinking, ‘I’ll show you’. To me, a nod from Mick after a game made my day. With others, he would put his arm round them. A great man-manager and a big influence on me.”
Today sees the two clubs who have played such a pivotal role in Lillis’s own footballing life go head-to-head.
“The atmosphere will be bouncing,” says Lillis, whose daughter Georgina works as the player welfare and support officer for City’s Academy.
“If Huddersfield are full throttle, they will give City a game, and, who knows, maybe even pull off an upset. This is the FA Cup, after all.”
Looking to get back in the game...
This season has been unusual for Mark Lillis in that it is his first outside football for a long time after leaving Huddersfield Town’s Academy last May.
“I have taken a few blows in football but that was a big one,” he says.
“But the club wanted to go in a different direction and I had to accept that.
“The toughest thing once out of football is getting back in. But I am exploring all sorts of ideas, and not just in football. I have 40 years of transferable life-skills and recently did a work experience at Proper Maid (baking firm). “Team-work was every bit as important there as in football. I really enjoyed it.”