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SUPREMOS: A look back at the career of former Sky Blues boss Dave Sexton

17 May 2019

Mark Robins is the latest in a long line of Sky Blue Supremos, the men who have tried to bring success to City. In this series first published in matchday programme PUSB, writer Rob Mason reflects on the highs and lows on those who have occupied the hot-seat.

In this edition, Rob Mason profiles Dave Sexton...

Just as it is often said that great players don’t make great managers, it can be the case that journeymen footballers can emerge as excellent managers. In their playing days none of Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho or Arsene Wenger can have laid claim to be the Panini sticker schoolkids most desired but they are amongst the greatest gaffers of the modern era. Similarly, Dave Sexton’s career as a player was a modest one but he became a big name manager of Manchester United, Chelsea and others, as well as Coventry City.

A deep thinker on the game he was a student and advocate of the ‘Total Football’ pioneered by Rinus Michels with Ajax and the Netherlands in the early seventies. Sexton had considerable success but being a studious and cerebral character he lacked the larger than life personality the media and fans required for a high profile boss, such as another one-time Sky Blue Supremo, Ron Atkinson, who took over from him at Old Trafford.

Gaining a degree in philosophy in later life, Sexton had actually been an amateur boxer as a youngster. He was following in the footsteps of his father Archie who fought for the Middle-weight title of Great Britain in 1933 but on the night after Dave’s birth on 6 April 1930 lost to George Willis at the King’s Hall in Manchester.

Sexton’s absence of a brash nature was there for all to see right from the start of his managerial career when the comparison with the ebullient Tommy Docherty, his predecessor at Chelsea, couldn’t have been more obvious. 

Luton Town brought Sexton into the professional game in 1951 after the young inside-forward had attracted attention playing for Newmarket Town and Chelmsford. Under the renowned Dally Duncan, Sexton would play just nine league games for the Kenilworth Road club, scoring once before moving on to West Ham in March 1953 with his Hammers debut following in a 2-1 home defeat to Fulham on 3rd April.

The Boleyn Ground would be Dave’s home for longer than anywhere else in his playing career. In 77 league and FA Cup games 29 goals came his way, including hat-tricks against Rotherham and Plymouth. Perhaps more importantly it was at West Ham that he honed his appreciation of the game. Under Ted Fenton the Hammers squad included a host of future managers. In addition to Sexton these included future Coventry boss Noel Cantwell, as well as Malcolm Allison, John Bond and another man who, like Sexton, would manage Manchester United, Frank O’Farrell. The group would frequent Cassettari’s Café opposite the Boleyn Ground to spend hours monopolising the café’s condiments as they used them as props for talks on tactics as each developed their philosophy on how the game should be played.

It was while he was with West Ham that Sexton won his first representative honour, playing for the FA against The RAF at White Hart Lane in October 1953. He would later play for a Third Division South Select XI against their northern counterparts.

While he would later spend serious money as manager of Chelsea and Manchester United, the only fee Sexton ever moved for was the £2,000 Leyton Orient paid for him to switch East London allegiance in June 1956. There he played for one of the game’s great managers Alec Stock (a future Luton boss) but when Stock left to take over at Roma at the start of Sexton’s second season Dave moved on again in October to Brighton – shortly before Stock returned to Orient for whom Sexton had scored just four goals in 24 league appearances. Nonetheless his year working with Stock combined particularly with his West Ham experience was shaping the thoughts of a man destined to manage with distinction.

After 18 months on the south coast where his 17 goals in 24 games helped them to promotion (Sexton spending his £300 bonus on travelling to Sweden to watch the World Cup) Islington born Dave was back in London with Crystal Palace where his old Chelmsford manager George Smith was now in charge. Oddly, fourth division Palace pulled Chelmsford in the first round of the FA Cup, Sexton scoring in a 4-1 win, while he also played in Palace’s record victory of 9-0 v Barrow.

February 1960 saw Dave score four goals in three games before what would be the final appearance of his career away at the footballing outpost of Workington. While he would stay on Palace’s books for another two years, cartilage problems saw him finished a couple of months before his 30th birthday.

Two years after playing for the last time Tommy Docherty gave Dave a chance, making him an assistant coach at Chelsea in February 1962. The Blues would win promotion back to the top flight in Sexton’s first full season and he would stay at Stamford Bridge until January 1965 when he took up the hot-seat himself for the first time, back at Brisbane Road with Orient.

Sexton’s steely side revealed itself when he made the unpopular move of releasing several club stalwarts and blooding youngsters including 15- year old Paul Went but with his team bottom of the second division he resigned after 11 months in charge.

Two months later he was back in the game as coach of Fulham where he worked with George Cohen who would win a World Cup winner’s medal with England that summer. Sexton wouldn’t be around to admire it though as he started the following season at Arsenal as assistant manager to the newly appointed Bertie Mee.

Three months into his second season at Highbury Sexton was back in management himself – this time replacing Tommy Docherty at Chelsea. He would stay at the Bridge for seven years leading the club to the FA Cup in 1970 and the European Cup Winners’ Cup a year later, both won after replays, the latter against Real Madrid. A year later Sexton would guide the Blues to another final, this time in the League Cup where they succumbed to Stoke.

Dave’s downfall in West London sprang from financial problems created by over-spending on a new stand combined with a growing number of disputes with crowd favourites. While at Orient these had been Sid Bishop, Stan Charlton and Dave Dunmore, at Chelsea it was Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson. Sacked in October 1974 Dave didn’t have long to wait or far to travel for a new job as thirteen days later he was installed as manager of near neighbours QPR.

Within a couple of months he had signed a cheque for £100,000 to bring in schemer Don Masson and in his first full season of 1975-76 saw his stylish side finish as runners’ up in the top fight, finishing a point behind Liverpool after beginning a run of eight wins from the last nine games with a 4-1 win over Coventry. Agonisingly Rangers were a point ahead of the Merseysiders after the Hoops completed their 42 game programme but had to wait an astonishing 10 days for the Anfielders to play their remaining fixture and squash their dreams with it, albeit they teased QPR by trailing at relegation threatened Wolves with 15 minutes left before coming back to win.

Having won a European trophy with Chelsea Sexton took QPR to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup where they lost on penalties to AEK Athens after smashing 26 goals in eight games. They went one stage better in the League Cup, only to lose to Villa in a replay.

That summer Sexton was on the move again, not for the first time succeeding Tommy Docherty, this time at Manchester United. Once again he wasn’t daunted by the opportunity to flash the cheque-book. Gordon McQueen, Joe Jordan, Ray Wilkins and eventually Gary Birtles arrived for big fees, the latter joining the then select £1m club - but it was winners’ medals not runners’ up ones that the Old Trafford hierarchy craved. Under Sexton United lost the 1979 FA Cup final and as in Dave’s time at Loftus Road, his side finished second in the league to Liverpool.

In his final campaign of 1980-81 there were only two league victories in 16 mid-season games which meant that despite ending the season with seven successive wins – including one at Highfield Road – Sexton was sacked as the season ended, with United in eighth place and having made no impact in the cups, going out of the League Cup to the Sky Blues.

It was the Sky Blues who were the next club to secure Sexton’s services, appointing him in May 1981 as a replacement for Gordon Milne whose nine year hold on the helm had come to an end despite that League Cup win over Sexton’s United setting them off on the road to the semi-final.

By the time the name of Dave Sexton was being put on the door of the manager’s office at Highfield Road the gaffer was in his fifties and a highly regarded figure within the game. That sprang from the style of pass and move football he liked to play. His was a cultured approach to the game and Coventry supporters could look forward to seeing some attractive football. Sexton could look forward to the first game of the season, a typical quirk of the fixture list seeing his new club entertain his new one on the opening day when goals from Steve Whitton and Peter Bodak outscored a sole reply from Lou Macari. There was more to come for home fans as Leeds were seen off 4-0 in the next home game with another four put past Southampton soon afterwards.

Excellent home form and terrible away form was the order of the day until a first away victory at Spurs in December but instead of signalling improvement that win at White Hart Lane proved to be the last in the league until mid-March. Three draws and nine defeats included a horror show at home to Notts County who won 5-1.

Given that dismal form there may have been some trepidation as Dave stepped back into Old Trafford 36 years ago this week but once again Whitton was the hero, grabbing the only goal as Les Sealey kept a second clean sheet in three games after coming into the side.

Three days later home fans saw their first league win in four months as Sexton’s side emulated his United team of the season before by finishing strongly. Starting with the win at Old Trafford there were seven wins and just one defeat in a 12 match spell which helped City to a 14th position finish, two places higher than the year before.

The start of Sexton’s second season was almost a mirror image of his first with cracking home form. Indeed in the anniversary week of the 1-5 home defeat to Notts County a crowd of nine and a half thousand went home happy after a 4-0 home win over Manchester City saw Sexton’s men move into double figures for home wins, with just two draws and a solitary defeat to Arsenal blemishing the record of a side who sat in fifth place.

Unfortunately history repeated itself with another 5-1 defeat to Notts County, this time at Meadow Lane and a season that was going well spiralled into near disaster. By the time City won at Stoke in the penultimate fixture only three points had been gleaned from the previous dozen winless matches.

Losing what would be Sexton’s City swansong, one of his old clubs, West Ham, won 4-2 at Highfield Road. It was the season of Luton Town’s final day win at Manchester City which doomed Man City to relegation, as recalled by Kirk Stephens elsewhere in this evening’s PUSB in his ‘Sent to Coventry’ interview.

Comparing the side who were fifth on Valentine’s Day and only just missed relegation there was one big difference. Garry Thompson made his final appearance in the Man City match. As relayed in Steve Phelps book ’29 minutes from Wembley’ Thompson has explained that Sexton fined him two weeks’ wages for not being in training after Chairman Jimmy Hill insisted Thompson was sold to West Brom to protect the club’s financial future. Thompson being sold was bad enough for Sexton but being sold without his knowledge evidently left the writing on the wall for the manager who was sacked at the end of the season.

The Coventry job was to be Sexton’s last manager’s position in club football but he was far from finished as within a couple of months no less a figure than Bobby Robson appointed him as assistant manager to the England team, Sexton having coached Robson at Fulham in the mid-sixties. The national team calling on Sexton’s experience was nothing new. For many years from 1977 to 1990 he had coached England Under 21s leading them to successive European titles, while he had also assisted Ron Greenwood and after the Robson era Dave would continue to work with Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Not content with that Sexton also became the FA’s technical director at their School of Excellence at Lilleshall and in the first year of the Premier League in 1992-93 coached at Aston Villa who finished as runners’ up.

Awarded the OBE in 2005, Dave Sexton passed away a month before Christmas in 2012 at the age of 82. His had been a life well lived. He is remembered as one of English football’s most thoughtful managers and one who wanted his teams to produce attractive football. While his time with the Sky Blues was far from his most successful spell, City fans were given an insight into a footballing philosophy much under-rated and under-used in British football.

This article was first published in matchday programme PUSB. To read more articles like this, make sure you get your copy of PUSB for £3 each matchday.


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