There has been no more thoughtful, open-minded or passionate student of football than Dave Sexton, one of the most respected coaches in the land for four decades and a key training-ground aide to England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson in his mid-seventies. Sexton achieved plenty in his marathon career – his Chelsea team beat Real Madrid in a European final, he went close to lifting the League title with Manchester United and Queen’s Park Rangers during an era of Liverpool dominance, and he served enterprisingly under six England managers – yet often he was portrayed negatively in the popular media.
Particularly during his sojourn at Old Trafford, the gentlemanly, unassuming Londoner was dubbed as staid and aloof, even boring. But he was a fascinating character, committed to his profession but relishing other aspects of life, taking an Open University degree in philosophy during his fifties, appreciating modern poetry, and being receptive to new ideas.
As a boy Sexton, whose father Archie fought Jock McAulay for the British middleweight boxing title in 1933, was told by a Jesuit priest at his school in the East End that he was football daft, and he was overjoyed to play the game for a living, though he was an unremarkable player, an industrious attacking inside-forward who graduated from Chelmsford City to Luton Town, then on to West Ham United in 1952.
In four years at Upton Park Sexton averaged a goal every three games, but more significantly he became immersed in the coaching culture, swapping theories with colleagues and fellow future managers like Malcolm Allison, Frank O’Farrell and John Bond. After training they would gather in a Barking Road cafe and theorise interminably, shifting salt-cellars round the table to illustrate tactics.
A stint with Leyton Orient followed, then in 1957 he dropped into the Third Division South with Brighton, for whom he struck the best form of his life, scoring 17 goals in 24 outings as they earned promotion. He spent a £300 bonus on a trip to Sweden, taking in the World Cup and cementing his desire for a future in coaching.
After he moved to Crystal Palace in 1959 knee problems forced his retirement in 1962, when he joined the backroom staff at Chelsea. Tommy Docherty was in charge of an exciting young team and Sexton flourished, inspiring among others the young Terry Venables with his creative approach, and in January 1965 he accepted his first management post, at Orient.
However his decision to replace veterans with youngsters upset the fans and produced rotten results, and that December, with his side at the foot of the Second Division, he resigned. He demonstrated his worth in his next job, working under Vic Buckingham at Fulham, helping them escape relegation from the top flight in 1966, leading to his appointment as Arsenal’s assistant manager and chief coach.
With manager Bertie Mee concentrating principally on administration, Sexton was given full rein on the training ground and did much to lay the foundations of the League and FA Cup double of 1971. He never shouted the odds but the players loved him, and they were devastated when he left in 1967 to replace Docherty at Chelsea.
Already enjoying respect from his previous stint, he was embraced by a starry dressing room featuring the likes of Peter Osgood, Peter Bonetti and Charlie Cooke. With fluent attacking play rendered more beguiling still by the Alan Hudson, Sexton guided Chelsea to third place in the League and the FA Cup in 1970, defeating Don Revie’s Leeds United in an epic replay at Old Trafford. Real Madrid were then beaten in the replayed final of the 1971 European Cup-Winners’ Cup.
Sexton’s espousal of flair and a neat passing game buttressed by strength and athleticism was paying dividends. But after losing to Stoke in the 1972 League Cup final, the club overspent on a new stand, the transfer budget was limited and a loss of direction followed. Some players became fractious – Sexton demonstrated steel behind his soft-speaking exterior by inviting Osgood to step outside to settle their differences – but fans turned on him and he was sacked in 1974.
Though more at ease with practical instruction than contracts and public communication, Sexton remained in management at Queen’s Park Rangers. Inheriting a promising side, with Gerry Francis and the gifted Stan Bowles, he added Scottish schemer Don Masson and in 1975-76 challenged for the title but Rangers finished runners-up, a point behind Liverpool.
In July 1977 he received an offer he couldn’t refuse from Manchester United. Having dismissed Docherty for falling in love with the physiotherapist’s wife, United craved a replacement whose qualifications were matched by a safe public persona.
The quiet Sexton was not cut out for life under the Old Trafford microscope. He abhorred the razzmatazz and was tagged “Whispering Dave”’ by journalists accustomed to his loquacious predecessor. Fans never warmed to his measured approach, contrastingly it disparagingly with the swashbuckling style of “The Doc”.
He spent heavily on players such as Joe Jordan, Gordon McQueen, Ray Wilkins and Garry Birtles, but failed to win a trophy. His sides went close, losing the 1979 FA Cup final to Arsenal and coming second to Liverpool in 1980, but it was not enough and he was dismissed in 1981 despite ending the season with seven straight wins. He took over at First Division Coventry City, developing a group of fine young players. He lost his job, much to their distress, when the Sky Blues only just scraped clear of relegation in 1983.
That he was happier behind the scenes was underlined when he led England under-21s to European Championship triumph in 1982 and by his sterling work as technical director of the FA National School in the second half of the 1980s. In 1992 he was employed by Aston Villa manager Ron Atkinson, who described him as “the best technical coach in the country”, enthusing over his belief in ball skills at a time when the lack of technique in the English game was exposed mercilessly by European competitors.
He had worked for England under Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson.Ignored by Graham Taylor, he was restored to the international fold by Terry Venables in 1994, and worked for Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and Sven-Goran Eriksson, for whom he organised an invaluable scouting network. A decent and humble man, he declared during his eighth decade: “I’m still learning; I’d like to be a good coach one day.” That ambition he had realised a long time ago.
David James Sexton, footballer and manager: born London 6 April 1930; played for Luton Town 1951-52, West Ham United 1952-56, Leyton Orient 1956-57, Brighton 1957-59, Crystal Palace 1959-62; managed Leyton Orient 1965, Chelsea 1967-74, Queen’s Park Rangers 1974-77, Manchester United 1977-81, Coventry City 1981-83; died 25 November 2012.