Sad news about their former manager made for a contemplative mood among the crowd as Rafa Benítez made his bow
A pall of sadness descended on Stamford Bridge on Sunday when the news began to spread, an hour before kick-off, of the death of Dave Sexton aged 82. One of the great coaches of post-war English football, Sexton guided Chelsea to victory in the 1970 FA Cup final and the European Cup-Winners' Cup the next year, the first against Don Revie's Leeds United and the second against the Real Madrid of Gento and Amancio, after replays on both occasions.
Coincidentally, it was after a semi-final against Sunday's opponents that Sexton's Chelsea reached their European final. It was the Chelsea of Peter Osgood, Alan Hudson and Charlie Cooke against the City of Mike Summerbee, Francis Lee and Neil Young, with Sexton's side defeating a team coached by his old West Ham team-mate Malcolm Allison 2-0 over the two legs.
In his private life Sexton was a lover of poetry, particularly that of Robert Frost. He would not have detected much lyricism in Sunday's match, played in an atmosphere defined by the noisy discontent of the Chelsea fans who gave their latest manager, Rafa Benítez, the coldest of welcomes.
Before Sexton's arrival at the Bridge in 1967 the club had employed seven managers in the 62 years of its existence. On Sunday Benítez became the 22nd occupant of the post since Sexton's departure in 1974, and the 25th if we include the caretakers.
As Fernando Torres, Ashley Cole and their team-mates began their journey under yet another new manager, older spectators found the images of the current squad being momentarily overlaid by those of Sexton's resplendently talented team, who so entertained their fans and neutrals alike at a time when the King's Road on a sunlit Saturday afternoon seemed like the most exciting place in the world.
That modest, courteous and introspective man would have detested the rancorous response of the current supporters to the first appearance of Benítez, replacing the sacked Roberto Di Matteo. Sexton's own seven years at the Bridge ended in dismissal after he had fallen out with some of his stars, selling Osgood to Southampton and Hudson to Stoke, while failing to build on those famous early cup successes. He moved a couple of miles up the road and immediately distinguished himself with Queens Park Rangers, where the much loved team of Gerry Francis, Stan Bowles, Don Masson and Phil Parkes so narrowly failed to take the old First Division title away from Liverpool
A colleague in the Stamford Bridge press box yesterday remembered going to Liverpool Empire that Tuesday night in May 1976, to see Elton John, while the last match of the season was taking place at Molineux. The singer brought on a placard bearing the result: Liverpool 3 Wolves 1, leaving QPR a single point behind in the final table.
A courteous and deeply thoughtful man, Sexton went on from QPR to manage Manchester United, taking over from Tommy Docherty – whom he had replaced at Stamford Bridge – and giving way to Ron Atkinson four years later. The sight of Torres labouring in vain on Sunday evoked the memory of Garry Birtles, one of Sexton's big buys at Old Trafford. So prolific with Nottingham Forest, his former club, the centre forward's failure to find the net in 25 league appearances contributed to the manager's downfall.
West London is where Sexton's memory is most warmly cherished but it was on the other side of the capital that his coaching career began, as a member of the generation of West Ham United players who went on to make fine and often innovative managers: Allison, John Bond, Noel Cantwell and Ken Brown were his contemporaries. How sad it seems that when a managerial vacancy occurs now at Chelsea or any other leading Premier League clubs, no Englishmen should be in contention.
Sexton would have hated that, too, although as a football man he would have understood the underlying problems and imperatives. But he loved passing on his immense store of knowledge and continued to coach young players, whether England's Under-21s, with whom he won the European Championship in 1982 and 1984, or a group of Warwick University students, long after his career as a league manager ended at Coventry City in 1983. Had he been born 20 or 30 years later he would have been the ideal man to run the FA's coach-education programme at St George's Park.
Not all Chelsea afternoons in the late 1960s were sunlit and garlanded with an Osgood wonder goal, of course. But on Sunday, watching a match almost completely devoid of distinction, with any hope of a spectacle ruined by error, imprecision and a series of wintry showers, it was hard to believe that, given these two sides, Sexton and Big Mal would not have contrived something more enjoyable.