FORWARD planning paid dividends for proud Huddersfield Town caretaker-manager Mark Lillis.
When he was appointed the club’s academy manager in December, 2011 the first instruction he gave to the youngsters was to watch all Town’s first-team home games so that they would be ready if ever they got the call.
On being handed temporary charge following the sacking of Simon Grayson, Lillis immediately handed a debut to Jordan Sinnott and the 18-year-old stepped up in style for this fourth-round tie.
“I think it paid off,” said Lillis, who admitted to filling up with tears of pride before leading out the club for whom he played with distinction in over 200 games from 1978-85.
“When I first came back to the club I couldn’t believe it was only an option to go and watch the first team because I told them that hopefully they would one day run out on that pitch.
“Now for Sinnott to have got his debut and taken it so well, not looking out of place, that will have given a lot of belief to those players.
“I’m one for academy players because I am the academy manager, but I just don’t throw them in because they are academy players. They have to be able to handle the occasion and he has done that.”
Sinnott is the son of Lee, who led Town to a 1995 Second Division play-off final victory under Neil Warnock in his first season with the club. He has recently helped his son’s progression at Altrincham, where he is now manager.
Lillis continued: “We sent Jordan out on loan there over Christmas where he has seen the other side of the game where managers are fighting for their jobs because they need points, where dressing rooms are not the best and where they don’t get food afterwards – they have to bring their own pack-up – so that just educates them mentally and helps them become ready for a game like (Saturday’s).
“I thought he was excellent. I knew he was ready and I made the decision on Friday and said to Steve Eyere (development coach), ‘I am going to go with Sinnott in the middle of the park’ and he said ‘wow’, but I said ‘don’t worry about it’ and that was it.”
Though promotion-chasing Leicester, who had inflicted wounding 2-0 and 6-1 Championship defeats on Town this season, made five changes for the tie, they still had plenty of quality.
Yet Sinnott was not over-awed, putting in some fine tackles but, more importantly, always seeking to puncture the visitors’ defence with creative passes, even if they did not always come off.
His parting shot was a 30-yarder which struck a defender’s arm, but did not win a penalty, before he retired with calf strain.
Lillis explained: “He gave me the nod that he could not carry on. I always say to them whether it’s academy or first-team football, if you have to come off and your tongue’s hanging out and you’ve put a shift in then great, and he did that.”
Lillis had tightened his midfield with Adam Clayton its attacking thrust and Oliver Norwood its defensive cover while Scott Arfield partnered Sinnott in the centre. It worked a treat and Leicester’s threat was minimal.
Martyn Waghorn’s shot on the turn was their only thrust in a first half in which Peter Clarke headed over from close range at a corner and striker Lee Novak squandered a couple of good chances.
Town stepped up a gear as they atacked the end packed with 4,000 Foxes fans and only a last-ditch sliding tackle from Wes Morgan denied Novak, who also saw a close-range downward header somehow beaten away by goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Novak – “he reminds me of myself, not the greatest footballer but someone who always puts a shift in,” said Lillis – got his reward by expertly tucking away a 74th-minute penalty after marauding right-back Jack Hunt had been tripped by Lloyd Dyer.
By then Leicester had thrown on their regular front two of David Nugent and Chris Wood, who soon tested Alex Smithies before pouncing for an 82nd-minute equaliser after Town swiched off for the only time in the game, allowing Dyer, who had switched flanks, time to drive a low cross for the striker to convert.
It came just two minutes after Danny Drinkwater had cleared James Vaughan’s header off the line. A goal then would surely have taken Town through.
“It’s been a great day for me, I have really thoroughly enjoyed it, though there is a slight disappointment that we didn’t win – but we’re still in the hat,” said Lillis.
He will prepare the side for Wednesday’s home game against Crystal Palace when Leicester loanees Jermaine Beckford and Neil Danns will be back in contention, but knows he is only in a holding role as the board ponder who to appoint – axed Southampton chief Nigel Adkins remaining favourite.
“It was a proud moment stood out on the sideline in charge of the team. It’s on my CV now, along with having captained them and taken them to promotion. I never dreamt that I would be taking the the team out in an FA Cup tie, but if you work hard in football and believe in yourself and you are a decent guy you will sometimes get the breaks,” added Lillis.
As for the future, he added: “The Championship is the priority for this club. To stay in there is so important. Whoever comes in and whatever happens that is the utmost priority, Championship football and building on that.”
Town are unlikely to bring in any new players before the transfer window closes and they hope to retain £3m-rated Sunderland target Hunt.
Lillis added: “Jack has done well and he is another I had a one-on-one with and just said to him, ‘listen, the big thing is, Jack, you’re not going to get a move in the stand, you are going to get a move by what you do on the pitch’.
“We don’t want him to leave but, there is speculation that he might. So the main thing was to have him back playing fantastically well.”
Huddersfield Town: Smitthies, Hunt, Clarke, Gerrard, Woods; Sinnott (Scannell 66), Norwood, Clayton, Arfield; Vaughan, Novak (Lee 81). Unused substitutes: Bennett, Wallace, Holmes, Dixon, Crooks.
Leicester City: Schmeichel, De Laet, Morgan, Keane, Konchesky; Marshall, King, Wellens (Drinkwater 69) Dyer; Waghorn (Wood 60); Vardy (Nugent 60). Unused substitutes: Gallagher, Moore, Futacs, Logan.
Referee: A Taylor (Cheshire).