Influential manager of Chelsea and QPR who advocated stylish passing and attacking
Dave Sexton, who has died aged 82, was the antithesis of the outspoken, larger-than-life football manager. A modest and cerebral man, he was one of the most influential and progressive coaches of his generation and brought tremendous success to the two London clubs he managed, Chelsea (1967-74) and Queens Park Rangers (1974-77), as well as the England Under-21 team and the Football Association's School of Excellence at Lilleshall, where he was the first technical director.
His deportment was a contrast to his Chelsea team, which including swaggering party boys, such as Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson, and the tough-tackling Ron "Chopper" Harris. Yet Sexton was embraced by players and supporters for advocating a mixture of neat passing and attacking flair backed up with steely ball-winners. At Chelsea, Sexton succeeded Tommy Docherty, who had given him his first coaching job at the club four years earlier. In 1970 Chelsea finished third in the league and won an epic, engrossing and ill-tempered FA Cup final against Leeds United, after a replay which was watched by 28 million people on television. A year later Sexton led the team to victory in the European Cup Winners' Cup final against Real Madrid, once more after a replay.
The team reached another final, the League Cup, in 1972, losing 2-1 to Stoke City, before Sexton's relationship with Chelsea soured. The club overspent on a new stand, which put the manager under financial pressure, and he fell out with Osgood and Hudson, the two star players, who were sold, to the dismay of supporters, to Southampton and Stoke respectively.
Sexton was sacked in 1974 and moved to QPR. At a smaller club that had only won a single major trophy previously, Sexton had the freedom to create a team that more closely mirrored his own football philosophy. In his second season in charge, QPR were runners-up in the league. Sexton was a student of Rinus Michels and Dutch "total football", a fluid and highly technical system in which all 10 of a team's outfield players can switch positions quickly to maximise space on the field. He would sometimes fly to Holland at his own expense to watch games. At QPR he inherited a talented group of players, including Gerry Francis, Stan Bowles and Frank McLintock, and also signed Don Masson. He instilled in the side a discipline and aesthetic that was ahead of its time, emphasising the importance of diet and fitness, and video analysis using footage that he had painstakingly edited himself.
The brand of football the team produced during the 1975-76 season took the league by surprise; they did not lose a game at home and beat the reigning champions, Derby, 5-1 away, with Bowles scoring a hat-trick. They were pipped to the title by Liverpool on the last day of the season. The following year, QPR reached the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup but could only manage 14th in the league.
Sexton attracted the interest of bigger clubs and arrived at Manchester United in the summer of 1977, after being expected to join Arsenal. He again replaced Docherty, who had been sacked. Sexton was seen as a safe option by theUnited board to replace the brash Docherty, whose affair with the wife of the club's physio- therapist had been made public.
However, Sexton's measured, quiet approach fitted awkwardly with such a large club under the media spotlight. The press dubbed him "Whispering Dave". He made some successful signings, such as Ray Wilkins and Joe Jordan, but was ridiculed for buying the striker Garry Birtles from Nottingham Forest for £1.25m; it took Birtles 11 months to score his first league goal for United. Sexton led the team to the 1979 FA Cup final, where they lost to Arsenal, and they finished runners-up in the league a year later, but he failed to win a trophy and was sacked in 1981. While working as a club manager, he was in charge of England's Under-21s from 1977 to 1990, leading the team to European titles in 1982 and 1984. He returned to the post briefly between 1994 and 1996.
Sexton was born in Islington, north London, the son of professional boxer Archie Sexton, and started his playing career as a forward with Chelmsford City before joining Luton Town for one season and then West Ham. He scored 29 goals in 77 appearances in the mid-1950s for the east London club, and it was there that he became immersed in the culture of football coaching. He was part of a group of young players, including Malcolm Allison, Noel Cantwell, John Bond and Frank O'Farrell, who would spend hours discussing tactics in Cassettari's Cafe opposite West Ham's Upton Park ground. All were destined to become successful managers.
Sexton also played for Leyton Orient, Brighton and Hove Albion, who he helped win the Third Division (South) Title in 1957–58 with 17 goals in 24 games, and Crystal Palace, before moving into coaching. After leaving Manchester United, his final position in management was with Coventry City (1981-83).
Sexton's depth of technical knowledge was utilised by several England managers. He was an assistant to Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson, and worked with Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle and Kevin Keegan. He wrote a book on coaching called Tackle Soccer (1977). In his 70s, he was still at the forefront of modern coaching techniques, and when Sven-Göran Eriksson was appointed England manager in 2001, he turned to Sexton to run a team of scouts who would compile a database and video library of opposition players, a strategy Sexton had pioneered three decades previously.
One of English football's great thinkers, Sexton had a love of art and poetry and completed an Open University degree in the humanities. He was made an OBE in 2005.
He is survived by his wife, Thea, and their children.
• David James Sexton, football manager and player, born 6 April 1930; died 25 November 2012