Across a rough field, a gaggle of 20 or so men in black track suits are playing football between goals placed 50 yards apart. Some five-a-side. But still, there are two odd men out. One is the chap in the bobble hat, who stands somewhat forlornly on the touchline, occasionally fetching the ball when it flies out of play. 'I can't get on,' says Dave Sexton, a 62-year-old grandfather, his bobble shaking mournfully.
The other notable figure is a larger man, wearing a more flamboyant track suit. His real distinguishing features are his pronounced suntan and his hair, which is arranged above his broad forehead in a sort of ornate flap.
This man, the man with the tan, stands just inside the field of play, shouting encouragement and, frequently, what sounds like abuse at the younger men scurrying around him.
'Deano, you shoot just like Rosenthal,' he bellows at a sturdy little chap with curly black hair as the ball flies over the bar. '. . . Jim Rosenthal]'
Every now and then someone gives the ball to the man with the tan. Without moving from his chosen square yard of grass, he controls it, looks up, and carries on shouting, his voice rising as he hovers over the ball.
'He takes the ball] A hush falls over the crowd] He jinks] He passes] And . . .'
And, as his attempted five-yard pass goes straight to an opponent, a chorus of jeers rises from the players. Ron Atkinson, the famously larger-than-life manager of Aston Villa, may dish it out, but he seems to be able to take it, too, even from his own staff.
The game ends after a vigorous hour, and the man in the bobble hat strolls back to the low red-brick building that is Villa's training centre. Inside, he takes a seat in the players' lounge. I ask him, is it always like that?
'You mean, is it always fun?' Dave Sexton replies. 'Well, the lads haven't got a league game this weekend, so they were just having a run about. They're going to Ireland tomorrow to play a friendly. But it's what you'd expect with Ron. He's good fun anyway. He likes a joke.'
The ironies bound up in the partnership of Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson are almost too exquisite to contemplate. Shy Dave and Big Ron. The man who couldn't communicate and the man who talked too much. The poetry- reading Jesuit and the walking advert for male jewellery. The man with an Open University BA (philosophy, literature, art and architecture) and the graduate of the College of Veuve Cliquot. Above all, in the present circumstances, they are two men whose consecutive stewardships of the biggest club in England, Manchester United, could hardly have been in greater contrast. When Atkinson followed Sexton into the manager's office at Old Trafford in 1981, it was as though H B Barnum had taken over from Harold Pinter. Now, together at Villa, this unlikely pair are plotting to obstruct the achievement that was once their dream as individuals: Manchester United's first championship title since 1967.
This weekend, Villa and United stand shoulder to shoulder at the top of the Premier League table; next Sunday, Atkinson returns to Old Trafford for
what will surely be one of the most dramatic and significant games of the season. United and their intense manager, Alex Ferguson, stand on the brink of a championship that would finally consign the living ghosts of Busby, Charlton, Law and Best to their proper places in history; it eluded them last year when their nerve broke at the prospect. For them, destiny awaits; for Atkinson's Villa, the chance to deny United is just part of the great game.
Dave Sexton's presence is a surprise, though. He had retired from his coaching job with the FA - running the Lilleshall school, managing the national under-21 team - when, last summer, Atkinson called him from Sweden, where he was watching the European championships, and asked if he'd come and help out at Villa. So this season he's been driving most days from his home in Kenilworth to Bodymoor Heath, just off the M42, a few hundred yards from the verdant greens and fairways of the Belfry.
Doesn't he think it's an odd partnership? 'It's like most stereotypes,' he
says. 'They're never quite as they seem to be. Ron's got a flamboyant image, but actually he's an idealist, from a football point of view. He's got a vision, which might not come across from the stereotype he's got. I suppose it's the same with me. I'm meant to be serious, which I am, but I like a bit of fun, too. And, obviously, the thing we've got in common is a love of football.'
Sexton has nursed a pure passion for the game since his East End schooldays, when a Jesuit priest at St Ignatius Loyola's school in Stamford Hill told him that he was 'football daft'. A playing career with Chelmsford, Luton, West Ham, Orient, Brighton and Crystal Palace led inevitably to coaching - first with Chelsea, under Tommy Docherty. His debut as a manager, at Leyton Orient, ended after a year when he resigned in frustration at his own lack of success. He went back to coaching, at Fulham and Arsenal, but then one day in 1967 Chelsea called, having sacked the wayward Docherty. Sexton inherited a good team, developed it, enjoyed the freedom of the King's
Road when he won the FA Cup in 1970 and the Cup-Winners' Cup the following year, but paid the price in 1974 when the success tailed off.
Next, at QPR, he added Don Masson to Gordon Jago's squad and took them to second place in the First Division. ('The easiest team I ever had to manage,' he calls them, 'because they were already mature . . . very responsible, very receptive, full of good characters and good skills. They were coming to the end of their careers, but they were still keen.') When Manchester United beckoned, in 1977, it was again in the turbulent slipstream of the sacked Docherty; the conventional wisdom says that Sexton, who would rather keep his silence than tell a lie, was never enough of a PR man for Old Trafford, and he fell after four seasons which included a Cup Final defeat at the hands of Arsenal, the failure to beat Liverpool to the league title, and a valedictory run of seven wins in a row. Three years at Coventry City were relatively colourless, and it wasn't until he took the England under-21s to two Eu
ropean championships that he had something else to put on the sideboard.
At one point, talking about the league championship, he'd said, with a wistful note in his voice, 'So I got close, but I didn't quite do it.' Did he sympathise with Alex Ferguson, under such pressure to make history? 'I have sympathy for every manager. It's an impossible job. Only one of them can win the League, only one can win the Cup. Everyone else is a runner-up. Even at the biggest clubs, you need a bit of luck. And I hope they all get it, because it's a lousy job when you don't. It's a more difficult job now than when I came into it. You used to be allowed a bit of a bad run. The funny thing is that out of a bad run often comes a good run, because you've used it to work things out, and when you start putting results together again you're stronger for the things you've done. They're not allowed that chance any more.'
But is there a special pressure at United? 'Well, there is, yes. But the thing is that if you were given the chance to go there, you'd go - accept
ing all the responsibility and the possibility that things could go wrong, just because it would be great to have a go, and to know you hadn't swallowed the chance. That's how I feel about it. I'll never forget the day after the Cup Final, which was a very dramatic game, when we came back to Manchester and were given a fantastic reception. And that was for losing] Good people . . .'
Given the option, though, and from his unique vantage point, would he rather be in Alex Ferguson's shoes this weekend, or in Ron Atkinson's? 'Now that's a difficult question.' A long pause. 'They've both got good staffs, good teams with lots of star players, good attackers, good defenders.' A longer pause. 'I suppose the thought occurs that it would be worse for Alex to lose than for Ron. I think he's under more pressure, because of the past.'
In the end, I asked him, does he measure the success of his own career in trophies? 'No. You know what I'm most proud of? The six months I had with Fulham in 1965. I'd just resigned from the Orient, who were bottom of the Second Division when I arrived and bottom when I left. I couldn't get any response. Fulham were bottom of the First Division. Viv Buckingham was the manager. He had George Cohen, Johnny Haynes . . . Bobby Robson was the captain. Allan Clarke came. Good players, but they were bottom of the table, with 13 games to go. I did exactly the same things I'd been doing at Orient. And we won nine of those games, drew two and lost two - and stayed up. It proved to me that you can recover any situation, if the spirit is there.'
Had it been difficult for a natural introvert, moving from club to club, often in difficult circumstances? 'Well, I am a bit shy, so standing up in front of people can be a bit of an ordeal. The first day you're at a new club is obviously one when people are looking at you and weighing you up, but if you speak to them from the heart, and don't fanny . . .' After 20 years in the harshest limelight, I said, he must have found it a relief to move into the margins. 'It was, yes. The reason I'm in the game in the first place is that I love football and working with footballers, trying to improve them individually and as a team. So to shed the responsibility of speaking to the press and the directors and talking about contracts, it's a weight off your shoulders. Now I'm having all the fun without any of the hassle.'
So what does he do for Villa? 'Well, I circulate around the various groups. The youth team, the young pros, the first team, depending on what Ron and Jim (Barron, the assistant manager) want. Mostly I've been concerned with movement, up front and in midfield. Instead of the traditional long ball up to the front men, approaching the goal in not such straight lines.'
You'd expect Dave Sexton to be an opponent of the long-ball game, and you'd be right. He was an inside-forward himself, and his teams have always played through midfield, creating platforms for the footballing eloquence of Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson at Chelsea, Gerry Francis and Stanley Bowles at QPR, Ray Wilkins and Lou Macari at Manchester United. If the belief that they don't make players like that any more has any validity, he says, it's because of intrusion of the long-ball game, which tried to do away with subtlety. 'But I believe we're going away from that now,' he adds. 'Thankfully, all the teams at the top of the Premier League are footballing sides.'
The first thing I remember reading about Dave Sexton was that he admired Robert Frost. In the late Sixties, a First Division manager who read modern American poetry was always likely to get good reviews from the football critics of the Sunday broadsheets, who polished their aphorisms in the King's Road trattorie before feasting on the delights of Stamford Bridge.
'Frost said something about the poet's craft. Let me try to remember.' The longest pause. 'Yes . . . 'The individuality of the words is at least as important as their union.' Can you see how that relates to coaching? That had a profound effect on me]'
And then he recalls something else, a few lines from a poem called 'Provide, Provide', about the obscure death of a faded Hollywood star. He recites them slowly, quietly:
No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.
'That's good advice, eh?'