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On Sunday afternoon at Stamford Bridge, the new interim manager of Chelsea Football Club, Rafael Benitez, was introduced to the clubs supporters to a less than rapturous reception. On a day laden heavy with symbolism, Chelsea and Manchester City, two clubs who have muscled their way into the ultra-rarefied air of European footballs top table, then played out a drab goalless draw which reminded us of a few fundamental truths about the game, the most prominent of which was that there are no guarantees of an entertaining game of football, even if the players on show are from two clubs, hyped beyond rationality and treated in so many aspects of their lives as living semi-deities. It’s not a criticism of the players to say this – it is seldom their fault that their every move is viewed as if through a filter which can make them appear superhuman – rather it is a reflection of the madness that seems to be on display everywhere we look when we regard professional football these days.
Thoughts of Dave Sexton, who died yesterday at the age of eighty-two, quite possibly weighed heavy on the minds of many at Stamford Bridge yesterday afternoon. Sexton managed Chelsea for seven years between 1967 and 1974 and would go on to achieve considerable success with Queens Park Rangers before finding himself as the right man at the wrong time for Manchester United at a time when that club was only just pulling itself out of a slump that had seen the club fall from being the champions of Europe to being relegated to the Second Division for the first time in almost forty years. Moreover, the tributes that have poured forward to him over the last twenty-four hours have celebrated a modest, intelligent man who occasionally seemed ill at ease under the spotlight. He was a manager who, we might propose, wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the modern Premier League, and to say that is no criticism of the man.
His playing career was brief, taking in Luton Town, West Ham United, Leyton Orient, Brighton & Hove Albion and Crystal Palace before moving into coaching at the age of twenty-nine, perhaps unsurprising for member of the mid-1950s West Ham United team that contained such names as Malcolm Allison (who would go on to manage Manchester City and Crystal Palace), John Bond (later of Norwich City and Manchester City), Jimmy Andrews (who managed Cardiff City for four years during the 1970s) and Frank O’Farrell (who would later spend an unhappy year at Manchester United during the early 1970s) which would come to be known as The Academy. He would get his first coaching job at Chelsea, but his managerial break came in 1965. This was short-lived and was followed by a short spell as a coach at Arsenal before being appointed as the manager of Chelsea in 1967.
The team that Sexton built at Chelsea was one which combined muscle and flair, but he did bring serious silverware to Stamford Bridge for the first time since the middle of the 1950s. In an age during which the prestige and allure of the FA Cup is diminished to previously uncharted depths, it is perhaps difficult to imagine the scale of the 1970 FA Cup final between Chelsea and Leeds United. Leeds had been chasing a treble in domestic and European competition, but Don Revies team ran out of steam, winning just one of their last six matches in the league to be comfortably beaten to the title by Everton (by nine points – the gap under three points for a win would have been seventeen points) and losing in the semi-final of the European Cup over two legs to Celtic. Chelsea, meanwhile, had finished the season in third place in the table, just two points behind Leeds.
The FA Cup final had been brought forward by a month because of the forthcoming World Cup finals in Mexico, and it did not benefit for it. Played prior to end of the league season and sandwiched between the two legs of the European Cup semi-finals, it was played on a Wembley pitch that resembled a bog just a week after the Horse Of The Year Show had been held on it. The clash between the two clubs was absolute, if only partially true. Sextons Chelsea team was the team of the Kings Road, the flashy southerners who were visited by Hollywood names, while Leeds United, for all the flair that the team was capable of, were typecast as the dour northerners. A bad tempered match featured a grandstand finish, with two goals in the last six minutes topping off a 2-2 draw, and in extra-time in a replay played at Old Trafford, Chelseas David Webb scored in extra-time to win Chelsea their first trophy since the 1965 League Cup in front of a record television audience of 28m people. Coming at the beginning of the era of colour television, at the start of the real era of mass consumption of televised football and in front of such a large audience, it is small wonder that the 1970 Chelsea team took on an iconic reputation amongst the clubs support.
Sexton followed this up the following season by winning the European Cup Winners Cup against Real Madrid after a replay in Athens and in 1972 his team was surprisingly beaten by Stoke City in the League Cup final at Wembley, but by this time his star at Stamford Bridge was on the wane. Dressing room arguments led to the sale Peter Osgood to Southampton and Alan Hudson to Stoke City and at the start of the 1974/75, with Chelsea well on the road to financial ruined as a result of the spiraling costs of their new East Stand, Sexton was sacked. He wasn’t, however, out of work for long and within eighteen months he’d created another iconic side of the 1970s, the Queens Park Rangers side that nearly nicked the league championship from Liverpool in 1976. Queens Park Rangers ended their season top of the table after a win against Leeds United, but Liverpool had a game in hand and won that to consign Rangers to second place in the table.
The following year, Sexton was on the move again, this time to Old Trafford. Manchester United had began to show signs of life after years of decline, beating Liverpool to win the 1977 FA Cup, but the club was still a very different to the juggernaut of the last two decades. Money was lavished on players, of course. Gary Birtles was a high-profile flop after signing from Nottingham Forest, but others, such as Ray Wilkins, Joe Jordan and Gary Bailey were successful, but Sexton’s time as the manager of the club saw him end up as something of a nearly man. In 1979, his team clawed back a two goal lead in the final minutes of the FA Cup final against Arsenal before losing the match to an Alan Sunderland goal in stoppage time. The following season, they went into the final game of the season level on points with Liverpool and briefly led the real-time table after an Avi Cohen own goal gave Aston Villa the lead in Liverpool’s final of the season match at Anfield. Liverpool, however, regained their composure to win (with Cohen scoring for Liverpool as well in the second half) while Manchester United ended up losing to Leeds United.
Sexton was sacked at the end of April 1981, in spite of having won his last seven matches in charge of the club (including a 1-0 win at Anfield against Liverpool). Ultimately, eleven draws in twenty-one home matches and an underwhelming eighth place finish in the league were enough to end his four years at Old Trafford. He would go on to spend a couple of years managing Coventry City whilst retaining an association with the England under-21 side until well into the 1990s. And the obituaries and tributes that have been written over the last couple of days have been full of respect and warmth for a football man whose career was only seldom sprinkled with stardust, but who embodied a certain type of coach for whom the joy of imparting his knowledge to others was a career ambition in itself, of sorts. Such respect and warmth is something that many involved in the Premier League this season might do well to reflect upon, but it is also worth considering that the early 1970s were themselves considered at the time as a period of irrevocable period of decline and fall by some. It can feel difficult to imagine, however, that we will look back on many individuals from the current era of the Premier League with as much affection as Dave Sexton has been the subject of over the last twenty-four hours or so. His loss may be that of someone from a bygone era, but that’s not to say that there aren’t lessons that can be taken from the way in which he conducted himself throughout his career.
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
Well said Ian. I often wonder whether the flamboyance of the Ron Atkinson era at Man United was at the expense of a possible title under the thoughtful tutelage of Sexton. In an age when Aston Villa could win a title with 14 players and Liverpool could get the cigar out while Southampton and Watford led the also-rans from a mile behind, I can’t help thinking Sexton would have driven a more sustained challenge from the United players of the time. And a thoroughly nice man to boot.