Dave Sexton was one of the most progressive football coaches of his generation. A member of the famous – and self-titled – West Ham academy of players that went on to coach or manage clubs, he was a quietly-spoken, shy man who was never afraid to try new methods.
At Chelsea, Sexton provided the antidote to the turbulent era of Tommy Docherty. He harnessed a team that was on the brink of honours to win Chelsea’s first FA Cup in 1970 and a year later, their first European honour (the now defunct European Cup Winners Cup). He was captivated by European football, and spent many hours watching the rising Dutch and German teams of the early 1970s. As a younger man, the Hungarian side of the 1950s had captured his imagination – in 1973, he changed Chelsea’s away kit to Red, White and Green in homage to the Puskas-led team. Likewise, he brought some continental flair to Chelsea in the form of an Ajax-style strip. Both were small gestures, but they represented how the cerebral Sexton was thinking.
There was also the case of zonal marking, a relatively unknown feature in 1970 when Sexton attempted to introduce it to the FA Cup holders. It caused some distress to one or two Chelsea players, notably David Webb, who was dropped due to his discomfort with the system. But once more, it showed that Sexton was open to new ideas.
Man management was never the jazz-loving Sexton’s strong point, however, and he was often at odds with the Kings Road dandies that occupied the Chelsea dressing room during his time in charge. It came to a head in 1973-74 with Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson, with both being transferred out of Stamford Bridge, only for Sexton to follow in the early weeks of the following season. By this time, Chelsea were a cash-strapped club, burdened by the huge East Stand project and starting to slide towards relegation.
Sexton showed, however, what he could achieve with the right backing and players when he joined QPR in 1975. He inherited a decent team from Gordon Jago and adopted a style of play that was not a million miles from Amsterdam or Rotterdam. Sexton’s QPR was the nearest thing to Total Football in the Football League, and the result was an excellent side that deserved to win some formal recognition.
The QPR team of 1975-76 was arguably the best never to be crowned Football League champions. That’s a bold statement, but anyone who visited Loftus Road in that campaign – they were unbeaten at home that season – would endorse that view.
For the record, that team comprised the following players. Phil Parkes, a big, burly keeper who played for England when he wasn’t advertising Cossack hairspray!. Two fine full backs who both represented England – the tragic Dave Clement ( he died young) and his partner Ian Gillard. Experienced refugees from Arsenal and Chelsea – Frank McClintock, David Webb and John Hollins. England wing-man Dave Thomas. Underrated Irish centre forward Don Givens. Overrated injury prone England skipper Gerry Francis. The talented Scotland midfielder Don Masson. And then there was Stan Bowles, a betting shop regular who was the sort of artisan who could balance a ball on the end of his nose as well as bamboozle opponents.
QPR finished runners-up by one point, beaten to the title by a Liverpool team they beat on the opening day 2-0. Sexton stayed another season before joining Manchester United – in preference to Arsenal – where he never quite fitted in (again following Docherty). He was sacked in 1981.
Sexton was rarely out of work, but he will be remembered for his time at Chelsea and QPR. Quite what he would make of the current football world is anyone’s guess….