The Huddersfield Town legend and Scunthorpe United assistant manager counts himself to be blessed to have played for boyhood club Manchester City in the mid-Eighties – including at Wembley in a final against tonight’s opponents in Porto, where the prize is somewhat grander.
It was in March, 1986, that Lillis, just 24 hours after playing in a Manchester derby at Old Trafford, almost scored the fastest hat-trick of all time at the Twin Towers, netting twice in a helter-skelter 5-4 loss in the Full Members’ Cup final against Chelsea.
Viewed as rank and file top-flight teams back then – an era which saw them spend time in the second tier – the blues of Manchester and London are now firmly among Europe’s elite.
Huddersfield-based Lillis told The Yorkshire Post: “People say: ‘Oh, you are a City fan because they have loads of money.’ But as soon as I was born on Oxford Road in 1960, I became a ‘blue.’ You were either from a red or blue family.
“I remember going to the 1969 FA Cup final against Leicester with my mum when Neil Young scored and we were in the Leicester end and I don’t know how we got tickets there.
“Those were the days when the dads and brothers would go for a mini-weekend in London from Friday to Sunday and the mums used to take the kids on Saturday and come back on Saturday.
“I have also seen the really tough times and pulled the shirt on fifty-odd times.
“It is unbelievable what we’ve done; it gives Manchester a boost. Pep (Guardiola) just inspires me when I listen to interviews.”
Another legend of the game in Celtic’s ‘Lisbon Lions’ winning European Cup captain in Billy McNeill was managing City when Lillis and his team-mates stepped out on the hallowed turf of Wembley in front of a crowd of 67,236 in the early Spring of 1986. City’s players travelled south in good spirits after fighting back from 2-0 down to claim a derby point at Old Trafford, but Lillis would later incur the wrath of ‘Cesar’, nickname of feted Parkhead legend McNeill.
He said: “We’d both played the day before. They won 1-0 and we drew 2-2 in the Manchester derby. We jumped on the bus and got bombarded with pies and stones from United fans coming out and then drove to Wembley.
“Paul Power said we’d ask the gaffer if we could have a beer when we got to the hotel in London. My nickname was ‘Bhuna’ and he said: ‘Could you go and ask the gaffer’. So I went and asked and he slaughtered me and all the lads were under the seats!”
Lillis actually had talks with Chelsea, alongside Sheffield Wednesday and Everton ahead of leaving Huddersfield in 1985. But he followed his heart and joined City, who had released him as a schoolboy at the age of 16.
He stayed just one season at Maine Road before being informed that City – who needed to raise funds at the time – had agreed a deal with Derby County.
Lillis did not want to leave, but effectively had no choice. These days, City do not have any such problems regarding finances.
Playing at Wembley remains something he will cherish, even though City were staring down the barrel of a heavy defeat at 5-1 down with just five minutes to go with David Speedie netting a hat-trick for Chelsea and Colin Lee tagging on a brace in the inaugural final of the competition, created in the wake of the 1985 ban on English clubs competing in Europe after the Heysel Disaster.
Led by Lillis, who scored twice and had claims for a third which was credited as a Doug Rougvie own goal, City fought back heroically before being edged out.
“Speedie got a hat-trick and I went up to the referee to get the ball after and he gave it to Speedie and said one of mine was an own goal. I had challenged Rougvie and thought I had got a touch.
“Paul Simpson made me a goal, a header, and I also scored a penalty. Although Graham Baker, who had come on as sub, put the ball down and I had walked a couple of steps. He came up to my ear and said: ‘Make sure you don’t effing miss it!’ I still think if we’d have had two more minutes, we’d have got it to 5-5.
“It was an awful day because we lost. But to play at Wembley for my home-town club with my mum and dad there and all my family was brilliant.”
The family will reconvene tonight and hope to be hailing a precious victory this time.
Lillis said: “I am going to my brother’s house and have my brand new shirt – the sky blue Puma one – and a flag. He has got a bar in his back garden, so all the family are going to go and watch it there.”
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