Dave Sexton, who passed away last Sunday aged 82, will be remembered as one of the outstanding manager-coaches of his generation. Prior to coming to Coventry City as manager in 1981 he had built a first-class reputation as one of the country’s top managers with Chelsea, QPR and Manchester United. In his two-year stay at the club he helped the development of a golden generation of City players and left the club a fine legacy.
Born in Islington, North London, the son of Archie Sexton, a middleweight boxer of the 1930s, his playing career started at Newmarket Town and progressed via Chelmsford City, Luton Town, West Ham, Leyton Orient and Brighton to Crystal Palace where a knee injury ended his playing career. He was a good lower division player whose only honour was a Third Division championship medal with Brighton in 1958.
His best period as a player was probably at Upton Park where he was a member of a group who immersed themselves in football coaching and tactics. The group, fathered by Ron Greenwood, included Noel Cantwell, John Bond, Malcolm Allison and Frank O’Farrell, would spend hours analyzing the game at a café opposite the Boleyn Ground. All were destined to become top managers.
In 1965 after a coaching job under Tommy Docherty at Chelsea he landed his first manager’s job, at Leyton Orient but lasted less than a year. Successful coaching at Fulham and Arsenal (where he was promoted to assistant manager under Bertie Mee) enhanced his reputation in the capital and when Chelsea sacked Docherty in October 1967 he was handed the Stamford Bridge job.
He inherited a strong but under-performing squad but with some shrewd signings (David Webb for £25,000 and Ian Hutchinson for £5,000) he built one of Chelsea’s finest teams. He won plaudits for his mixture of neat passing and attacking flair (with players like Peter Osgood, Charlie Cooke and Alan Hudson) backed up with steely ball-winners (like Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris and Webb). For a time Chelsea were the most attractive side in the country. In 1970 Chelsea finished third in the league and won an epic, engrossing and ill-tempered FA Cup final against Leeds United, after a replay which was watched by 28 million people on television. In February of that year they gave a dazzling display at Highfield Road, beating one of the best City teams of all-time, 3-0. A year later Sexton led the team to victory in the European Cup Winners' Cup final against Real Madrid, once more after a replay.
After losing the 1972 League Cup final to Stoke City, Chelsea went into decline, hampered by the cost of their ill-conceived ground developments and wranglings between Sexton and some players. He was sacked by Chelsea in 1974 but within weeks he was appointed manager at Queens Park Rangers. Espousing his football philosophy he developed a side that was unlucky not to win the League Championship in 1976 – they were pipped by a point by Liverpool on the final day. He got the best out of talented players such as Gerry Francis, Don Masson and Stan Bowles with an exciting attacking brand of football. Dave was a keen fan of Dutch total-football and would often fly to Holland at his own expense to watch games and learn.
In 1977 he resigned from QPR and was on the verge of rejoining Arsenal as coach when Manchester United persuaded him to replace Docherty again. He lacked the charisma required for the Old Trafford job and despite an FA Cup final appearance in 1979 and League runners-up the following year he failed to end United’s long wait for the championship and was castigated for some questionable signings including Gary Birtles.
In 1981 he was sacked by United, despite the Reds winning their last seven games of the season. Jimmy Hill persuaded him to come to Coventry to take over from Gordon Milne who moved upstairs.
His first game in charge for the Sky Blues was against United and he tactically out-thought his successor, Ron Atkinson, to give City a 2-1 win. During his time at Highfield Road City’s style became more cultured but it rarely set the world alight, although in Sexton’s defence he was never given the freedom to spend like other City managers. His first season in charge went well until Christmas then City picked up just three points in twelve games including a 5-1 home defeat to Notts County. However, just as things were at their blackest, and fans wondered where the next league win was going to come from, City mounted a tremendous revival. Buoyed by Sexton’s inspired signing of his former QPR lieutenant Gerry Francis, the young team went on a run of thirteen games with only one defeat, including a never-to-be-forgotten 5-5 draw at the Dell, and a 6-1 win over Sunderland, that took them well clear of relegation. Players such as Steve Whitton, Mark Hateley, Danny Thomas, Steve Jacobs and Gary Gillespie blossomed under Dave’s mentoring. Garry Thompson describes Dave as being ahead of his time: ‘He had a massive influence on the team and individuals. He made me a much better player by concentrating on the smallest parts of my game as well as encouraging me to watch the best players in my position – he had us watching videos of the best players in the world in the early 80s. After I left City it was like going back into the dark ages.’
In his second season with gates falling under 10,000 he had to survive with a squad of 14-15 players. After Thompson was sold over his head in February 1983 the team’s form fell away disastrously and 13 games without a win took them to the brink of relegation. They survived by the skin of their teeth but Sexton was sacrificed for the return of Bobby Gould much to the disgust of his young players.
Whilst at Coventry he also managed the England Under-21 side to victory in the 1982 European Championship and continued in that role for several years, winning the trophy again in 1984, as well as being assistant manager of the England team under Bobby Robson. His depth of knowledge and the respect he was held in within the English game was such that he was utilized by a succession of England managers including Terry Venables, Glen Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and he was still heavily involved with Sven Goran Ericsson’s scouting network into his 70s. He played a leading role in the setting up of the FA’s School of Excellence but never managed at club level after leaving Coventry. Away from football he was a fascinating character, relishing other aspects of life, taking an Open University degree in philosophy during his fifties, appreciating modern poetry and art, and being receptive to new ideas. His love of sport even extended to American Football and I am told that he studied the sport's tactics and plays. He continued to live in Kenilworth where, in 2008, a building was named in his honour. Sadly in latter years dementia took its toll.
Dave Sexton was an unassuming and highly intelligent man, always placing the greatest emphasis on technique and progressive football rather than the long ball and a big boot. He never sacrificed those principles.
His funeral takes place on Monday 10 December at 11 a.m. at Kenilworth.