NORMAN GILLER pays tribute to one of the finest and most respected of English football coaches
The football family turned out in force in Coventry this week to say a final fond farewell to the coach’s coach, Dave Sexton. It was as if somebody had taken a pack of old football cigarette cards and tumbled them out, with the players appearing as the white-topped veterans they are today.
I can think of few funerals that could have been a magnet for so many past masters. Dave, a treasured pal of mine going back to when he played for West Ham and Orient in the 1950s, had a favourite game that we used to play together on coach and train journeys. It was “pick the greatest teams”, and the only rule was that Dave would have the final say as to who had selected the best side.
Privately, I played the game out of respectful memory to Dave as I looked around the packed congregation at the St Francis of Assisi Church in Kenilworth on Monday. I managed to come up with the following two teams from the vast turn-out of old pros paying their respects to one of the game’s nice guys:
Sexton All Stars 1: Peter Bonetti; David Webb, Frank McLintock, Gordon McQueen, Stewart Houston; John Hollins, George Graham, Trevor Brooking, Terry Venables; Lou Macari, Joe Jordan
Sexton All Stars 2: Ray Clemence; John Sillett, Tony Adams, Mick McGiven, Martin Buchan; Gerry Francis, Steve Hodge, Gordon Milne, Paul Davis; Peter Withe, Alan Birchenall
The teams would be managed by Roy Hodgson and Ron Atkinson, among the myriad of men who were inspired by Dave’s inventive coaching methods. Frank McLintock pointed out in a moving and emotional eulogy that Dave had been advocating “Total” football when most people thought it was a petrol company sponsorship.
I knew all about the Sexton legend long before I met Dave. As I come from a boxing-mad family, I grew up with tales of his Dad, Archie, who was a leading middleweight in the hungry 1930s. He appeared in the first ever televised contest (an exhibition match against Laurie Raiteri in 1933). A couple of days before challenging the mighty Jock McAvoy for the British title he dived into the river to save a young girl from drowning. He got a bravery award.
That was nothing! Archie lost the sight of an eye in the ring, and so he was unable to serve in the forces and had to settle for a role as a special constable with the Metropolitan Police. In 1944 he risked his life to save two people trapped in a bombed building, and was awarded the George Medal, the highest award available to a civilian, presented by George VI at Buckingham Palace.
So Dave and I had lots to talk about away from the world of football. We shared a love not only for boxing but also for modern jazz, and I was privileged to be there to chronicle his rise as a coach and manager after a playing career handicapped by a spate of injuries.
One of my rare exclusives for the Daily Express was when Chelsea poached him from Arsenal as he was laying the foundation to their 1970-1971 Double team. Club skipper Frank McLintock was so furious that he threatened to lead a revolt of the players until Don Howe was installed as Dave’s successor and steadied the ship.
Dave collected the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup with Chelsea, managing to control a group of players overflowing with talent but with an insatiable appetite for the social life.
He had a code of conduct that did not allow for excesses of the type that were commonplace among the Chelsea set, and it famously reached the point where he took lovable rascal Peter Osgood into his office, locked the door and said chillingly: “Do you want to do things your way or my way?” Ossie later told me that he was petrified.
Dave was quiet and courteous, but underneath was an extremely tough and competitive character.
The only time Dave and I fell out was when a Stamford Bridge insider telephoned me at the Express to say that Ossie, Alan Hudson, Charlie Cooke and Tommy Baldwin had come reeling drunk into the ground after a liquid lunch in the King’s Road.
As much as I wanted to protect Dave, there had been too many witnesses for me to ignore the story and we splashed it on the back page.
Dave telephoned me at home first thing the morning that the headlines appeared and searched his lexicon of insults. The best this non-swearing, church-going Roman Catholic could come up with was: “You’re a ratbag …” and slammed down the telephone.
We made our peace sufficiently for me to act as undercover go-between when he took Ray Wilkins from Chelsea to Manchester United, where he failed to meet the high standards he had set for himself as a manager who always wanted his teams to play with grace and style.
One of his greatest feats was steering Queen’s Park Rangers to runners up in the First Division in 1975-1976, getting agonisingly pipped by one point by Liverpool.
The buzz at the funeral was about the falling standards of behaviour on the pitch and in the stands, and we were unanimous in agreeing that it was entirely against the dignity and respect for which Dave stood throughout more than half a century in the game.
The most important thing in his life was his family, including his nine grandchildren and, in particular, his gorgeous wife of 57 years, Thea.
In a superbly delivered eulogy, his son Chris revealed how Dave’s proudest moment apart from his OBE was getting a BA (Hons) through the Open University, which he did without telling anybody in the game. His next boast would have been his first.
Dave’s last few years were lost in the fog of dementia, the curse of old footballers. But none of us who knew him will ever forget his decorum, his style and his smile.
Rest easy old friend. And yes, I was a ratbag.