Football Taught By… Dave Sexton

In football it is a very rare event that a manager is handed one of the best jobs with a squad packed full of potential and on a high.

The nature of the industry means that at least 95% of managers generally have a few problems to fix when taking on new work, as the previous tenure had to end for whatever reason, and a strong element of that reason would be a lack of success.

Even when Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson retired, their successors were tasked with the prospect of transition with some seriously big names in the club’s history. What Dave Sexton inherited from Tommy Docherty in the summer of 1977 was the equivalent of Busby retiring in 1955 or Fergie calling it a day in 1996.

That’s not to say he had a perfect squad that needed no work. But it was a team which had just won the FA Cup and was on the rise in an era where Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest would win European Cups and league titles.

Theoretically Sexton, a coach with proven credentials of inheriting good squads (he’d won the lottery before, taking over Gordon Jago’s improving QPR side, the best in the club’s history), ought to have been perfectly placed.

Maybe he could add some reason to a highly-entertaining, but admittedly erratic, side. It could have been a perfect marriage.

Sexton, however, showed a little too much of the Moyes and Van Gaal too early on. He alienated some of the most popular players from the Docherty era, both in terms of personally and publicly. Distance was created between the manager and players like Brian Greenhoff and Gordon Hill, who personified the cavalier and gung-ho approach.

Those players did not appreciate it. There did not seem to be the sort of healthy dialogue required to make the transition easier on all parties and thus, like Moyes a few decades later, it could be argued the manager did not fully appreciate what he had been handed.

Like Van Gaal, Sexton thrived on instruction. He believed all could be explained so it should, and the instinct was almost immediately siphoned out of United’s thrilling play.

It meant that as the first season wore on, United became almost unrecognisable, although Sexton was not helped by a spate of illness and injuries. It made the flaws in Docherty’s side look like major issues and so physicality and presence was added in the form of McQueen and Jordan at either end of the pitch.

The workmanlike Mickey Thomas was brought in to replace the wow factor in Gordon Hill. Ray Wilkins was eventually signed to add some defensive, but conscientious, ball retention to the backline. He was also a supreme passer.

In theory these changes could have been good because they were qualities United were missing. The issue came in the qualities which were being sacrificed so those players could be integrated. The team became unrecognisable and the crowds voted with their feet.

After two years of declining performances, crowds voted with their feet. And shoes – one woman, sitting by the dugout, hit Sexton with a shoe after a February 1979 game with QPR.

A run to the FA Cup Final earned Sexton a stay of execution. United were 2-0 down with ten minutes to go. They somehow earned parity through McQueen and a brilliant McIlroy solo effort, but were struck by a sucker punch a minute later to lose in devastating fashion.

Alongside the Porto home game in 1977 – where United were 4-0 down from the first leg, but played in an electric fashion to almost turn over the deficit – the club seemed to be at their best when the shock therapy of how dire their situation was jolted them into a former life where caution was thrown to the wind.

Sexton, though, did not heed the message, and instead doubled down on his pragmatic approach. United finished second in 1980 but they had stumbled into a title challenge as Liverpool were strolling.

If second was a slightly generous position, then eighth certainly wasn’t the following year. They were ninth on March 20th, and proceeded to win their final seven games of the season, only to finish one place higher.

Using every measure, United had regressed under Sexton, and with no sign that things would improve, he was sacked at the end of the 80/81 season.

Major Decisions and Transitions

United are notoriously poor sellers and it has been that way since time began, though this is partly due to a loyalty the club provides to its players. As something of a reward for service which was always traditionally poorly paid in comparison to other clubs, especially for young players, they were permitted to leave for smaller fees or even for free sometimes.

So it puts into context the sales of Gordon Hill and Brian Greenhoff, who both earned the club record incoming fees when they were sold in April 1978 and August 1979 respectively. It was most striking indeed that Brian – a defender – went to Leeds for £350,000.

Big money was spent to acquire Jordan and McQueen. Their totemic presence added something previously missing and both would go on to be fondly remembered for their contribution but it is fair to say that there were things Brian Greenhoff and Stuart Pearson possessed which their replacements did not. Brian was very good at bringing the ball out and starting attacks. Pearson was more suited to the pinball style attack United were best at playing.

Mickey Thomas was a Coppell-lite on the left. At the end of his first season, Thomas has scored one in the league – Hill, the man he had followed, was top scorer at the club from the wing.

The buzzing midfield of Macari and McIlroy was complemented by the patience and intelligence of Wilkins but again what was lost to introduce it was possibly greater than what was gained. By the end even the straightforward moves were going against the manager – Garry Birtles replacing the ageing Jimmy Greenhoff wasn’t a bad move on paper, but it did not work out on the pitch. Greenhoff wasn’t exactly prolific but by Birtles’ standards he most definitely was.

“It is possible to have three dour midfield tacklers or three skilful touch-players,” Sexton wrote in his book Tackle Soccer. “Some might say horses for courses, but I believe the most important thing to establish a good balance.”

In his quest for balance, Sexton had probably not fully appreciated the ‘horses for courses’ element – he’d inherited a squad that seemed as if it had been assembled by chance. But the intelligence and balance in that team should have not been underestimated.

“One day after training Dave called me up to his office and we sat and watched a film of Hungary defeating England; he wanted me to observe how hard the wingers worked and followed the managers instructions,” Hill recalled. “It must have been difficult for the staff who had remained at the club after the Doc left. Tommy Cavanagh had been with the boss and saw us develop and improve the way we had been and I’m not sure he was into watching all the videos; I think he didn’t know which way to turn. Ultimately he had no choice but to coach us following Dave’s methods – it was get on the bandwagon, or find yourself another club. Cav would still encourage where possible to express ourselves as he knew that was when we would play our best, but training was a world apart from how it had been under the boss (Docherty).”

Though his legacy is mostly remembered for dour football – particularly in the wake of inheriting arguably the most exciting team the club ever had, a statement not made lightly – Sexton did leave a strong youth system in place. By the end of his tenure, Mick Duxbury was breaking into the team, whilst the likes of Norman Whiteside and Mark Hughes were waiting for their chance.

The team he left had four survivors from the FA Cup Final four years earlier (five, if you consider McIlroy, not in his final side, was still a regular). It seemed a very unnecessary transition to break up such a young side.

Sexton, by all accounts, was well-liked by everyone, but perhaps didn’t appreciate the size of character needed to succeed in the role.

Furthermore, those players ostracised who had been huge favourites under Docherty, were not appreciative of the way Sexton handled their exits from the club.

The Tactics

Sexton used the 4-2-4 but it was more of a 4-4-2 and there was a great emphasis on the wingers who needed to work harder. No problem for Coppell – but a big one for Hill.

United’s team had accommodated for Hill because they knew how special he was at the other end, but this was a conflict with Sexton’s philosophy. He was a huge fan of boxing, constantly using analogies of the sport to players, and loved expressing the value of the kinetic energy of a counter attack punch – and it’s fair to say that a good counter attack is part of United’s traditional values.

In fact, the Chelsea and QPR teams Sexton had coached before he arrived at Old Trafford were renowned for playing attractive football.

Perhaps it was simply the case that because Docherty’s tactics had been so gung-ho, anyone might have seemed conservative by comparison. Add in some pragmatism and it would have felt – as it did – like a different world.

This direction was felt in all areas of the team, defence, midfield and attack, and only in central midfield could it really be argued that there was a possible improvement. To come to that conclusion, though, you would still have to be sure there was a place for the hugely popular Macari in the team.

Adding responsible thinkers like Wilkins and Thomas could have its benefits, and often did, but again, when it came to comparing what they achieved to the way the Doc’s side played, it could feel like anathema. It’s harsh – but football sometimes is, when it strips away the opinion and leaves you with performances and results.

Ultimately, having received a squad the envy of any manager at a new job, by the time he left, Dave Sexton left a situation common for most taking up a new role. The squad were lacking cohesion, identity – and, fundamentally, all at the club seemed to be yearning to return to 1977 so that they could just forget what had happened. Indeed, they were crying out for a man with the skillset and personality of Sexton’s predecessor.

There were some good elements for a manager to take over, but the club had regressed.

The Players

First team

Stepney, Nicholl, Greenhoff, Buchan, Albiston, Coppell, Macari, McIlroy, Hill, Pearson, Greenhoff
Sub : McCreery

Last team

Bailey, Duxbury, McQueen, Buchan, Albiston, Coppell, Moran, Wilkins, Macari, Birtles, Jordan

Most memorable game

Though the FA Cup Final is up there, and so too was the home game with West Brom in December 1978, both of these games are remembered for the spectacularly poor way United conceded goals as much as the entertainment factor. In truth, neither were representative of the era.

Neither was the game against Porto in November 1977. It had the hallmark of the above games – ultimately, it was a stunning fightback which counted for nought – but on the basis that in a singular night, United won the game and also had an Old Trafford atmosphere for the ages, this match stands alone as the most memorable from the Sexton era (fighting out tough competition from the 1979 Cup semi-finals with Liverpool).

In a way, that the most memorable match from the Dave Sexton era was effectively the last hurrah from the Tommy Docherty team is perhaps the best way to sum up what happened from 1977 to 1981.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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