Football / Kick-Off 92-93: Sexton still an eager style counsellor: Five decades in the game have not dimmed the enthusiasm of one of football's wisest figures: Phil Shaw meets the veteran coach who is bringing the voice of experience to Aston Villa

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The Independent Online
MOST PEOPLE paid lip service to the poverty of technique in the English game after the national team's inglorious exit from the European Championship. Ron Atkinson put Aston Villa's money where his mouth was.

From Sweden, where he witnessed the debacle as a television pundit, he rang Dave Sexton and asked him to join the Villa coaching staff. The man Atkinson described as 'the best technical coach in the country' may prove one of the summer's shrewder signings when the Premier League kicks off on Saturday.

Although Sexton is now a white- haired, thicker-set 62, and into the fifth decade of his career as a player, coach and manager, it is his first club post since leaving Coventry City and taking charge of the Football Association National School nine years ago. His CV also includes FA and European Cup-Winners' Cup successes with Chelsea, League runners-up places with Queen's Park Rangers (memorably) and Manchester United (less so), as well as the Uefa Under-21 Championship with England.

No mean record, yet both Chelsea and United sacked him, the latter after a run of seven victories. Apparently he did not have the charisma of his successor - the same Ron Atkinson. According to Sexton, there was 'never any animosity between us'. Their footballing philosophies (a word to be used carefully in his presence, since he has a degree in Humanities from the Open University) are similar.

'Ron has very high ideals,' Sexton says. 'He loves his football, and has to like what he sees when his team are playing. If he likes it, he knows the public will too. Over the years he has bought and developed touch players - at United, at West Brom - and he always understood that you need a combination of flair and strength.'

This is the blend towards which Sexton aspires at Villa, where he works at all levels, from schoolboys to seniors. Somewhat unexpectedly, he did not share fully the feeling of gloom that followed the European Championship. 'I've always been very loyal to British players. We've got good qualities here. Nevertheless, I'm not blind - I can see areas where we need to improve.

'Take the question of defenders' touch. We don't ask centre-backs to do much except bat the ball back upfield. You're not going to be a good side unless your defenders can pass. I still say: 'If you're in trouble, belt it away, but if you've half a chance to pass, do so'. I'm only asking for two touches. One to control it, one to pass.'

England's failure did not mean the system was terminally flawed. 'It's more a question of who you pick,' he remarks, perhaps pointedly. 'When we got to the (World Cup) semi-finals in 1990, technical ability wasn't an issue because we had ball players like Waddle, Gascoigne and Beardsley in the side.'

But how to produce that facility to kill a ball and hit a telling pass in the hurly- burly of domestic football? Sexton agrees a smaller Premier League would have helped resolve the contradiction. 'Technique and staying power tend to work against each other,' he says. 'To be skilful you must be relaxed, but to be competitive you need to be wound up. Good players switch off mentally when their team has the ball, and turn on again when they lose it. Great players do it quickly.

'Liverpool are the classic example. In possession they'll do a dozen passes. Economy, keep the ball moving. When they lose it, they all hustle to get it back. You can't wave a wand and achieve that, but if you work at it consistently, the reward is evident.'

Villa's eminence grise has invested in a satellite dish, and, again surprisingly, regular exposure to foreign football has in one sense reaffirmed his faith in the British game. 'The sweeper system is supposed to be the answer to everyone's problems, but you watch AC Milan. They play exactly like us - flat back four, zonal defence, pushing up for offsides etc - the difference being that when they have the ball they relax like I said.'

Surely Milan could play 1-8-1 and look good? 'Yes, but someone's done a bloody good job of persuading world- class players to work their bollocks off. We could be like that in England if we improved our touch. At the moment we're paying for the long-ball game. Players like (Don) Masson and (Alan) Hudson who brought the ball through the middle are redundant at some clubs.

'But I think it's just a passing phase,' he adds, no pun intended. 'Through all my 13 years with the Under-21s people said there were no players, but they kept coming through. The talent is there, and I'm still very optimistic.'

It is undoubtedly there at Villa Park. Sexton reels off a list of real prospects: Dwight Yorke, the athletic Tobagan forward; Stephen Froggatt, an attacking wide-midfielder; Bryan Small, a left- back he knew as a winger at the FA School; Atkinson's German discovery, Matthias Breitkreutz, and more. Too often last season, however, Villa's most influential individuals were Cyrille Regis, aged 34, and Paul McGrath, 32. His task is to translate potential into performance.

'It's lovely working with younger players. If you say 'do it', they will, whereas the senior player thinks: 'Hold on, I've got good points - will this detract from them?' But you can always improve someone's game, even in his thirties.'

For example, Dalian Atkinson, Villa's pounds 1.6m buy from Real Sociedad, who never quite came off last season. 'Dalian was a winger when he started at Ipswich, so he's used to waiting for the ball. I've been working on getting him to come off his marker - like Flemming Povlsen did with Jurgen Kohler in the European final - and look for the ball. Then he can turn and run at defenders, use that explosive pace.'

The manager's namesake is suitably impressed. Atkinson recalls a training regime in Spain of 'stretch, warm-up, then five-a-sides'. Sexton, he explains, works in a more structured way, helping Villa's goal-shy strikers with 'runs and cross-overs, techniques you learned as a kid and had forgotten. But always with a ball.'

Sexton confirms that he never works without one, one of the few rules of a flexible approach that could turn Villa from pretenders into contenders. 'You've got to keep an open mind,' he smiles. 'I'm in my sixties and I'm still learning. I'd like to be a good coach one day.'

(Photograph omitted)