QPR fans disillusioned with their recent state of affairs (Four Year Plans, F1 moguls, narcissistic midfielders and the rest of it) will always hark back to the 1970s as the most glorious period in the club’s history. The pinnacle of this was the 1975-6 season, their ‘annus mirabilis’, in which Rangers finished runners-up in the First Division, to this day their highest ever finish.
36 years ago, having completed all their fixtures, QPR sat atop the First Division and had to wait for Liverpool to play Wolves, after the Reds finished their two-legged final of the UEFA Cup against Club Brugges. Wolves were leading for 77 minutes, before three goals gave Liverpool the title. As a team who’d been in the Third Division just 9 years previously (playing the likes of Workington, Grimsby and Darlington), many QPR fans were just happy to be the ‘Champions for 10 days’.
But just as remarkable as QPR’s rapid return to the First Division, was the type of football they played in that famous 1975/76 season. Total football had made its way into the capital, across the Channel from Dutch shores. One man was behind this radical change of tact: David Sexton.
In a footballing landscape living in the legacy the 1966 World Cup winning England, what QPR did under Sexton was ground-breaking. The ‘66 team had won playing a direct style under Alf Ramsey, using a 4-4-2 diamond formation that would form the basis of English football for subsequent decades. Thus, Sexton’s attempts to play total football broke the tactical rigidity. Instead his side reflected Holland’s 1974 World Cup side and it nearly brought trophies to Loftus Road too.
Sexton was also a real student of the game. He adored continental football and would make frequent visits to Germany and Holland to learn about new styles and training methods. Don Masson, the Scottish creative midfielder plucked from Notts County by Sexton, notes, “Dave used to go to Holland on Sundays to watch the Dutch league, he used to pay for it out of his own pocket just to learn and advance himself.”
His main point of reference was Rinus Michels’ great Ajax team of the late 1960s, who won four Eredivisie titles and a European Cup. The Amsterdam side were the originators of total football and Sexton was keen to transpose this philosophy to his new QPR squad. Frank McLintock, the Scottish centre back signed from Arsenal in 1973, highlights the key principles behind Rangers’ playing style, “Emboldened not to be straitjacked by the numbers on our backs or by the orthodoxy we had learned before, we were encouraged to take more daring positions when we were in possession.”
McLintock’s move to QPR had similarities to Velibor Vasović’s to Ajax in 1966. Vasović played sweeper for Ajax and captained them to their first European Cup, at Wembley, in 1971. Both born in 1939, they were experienced players and leaders, who had won titles and could command from the back. Vasović was still relatively young at 26, but he arrived with four Yugoslav Championships and as captain of the national side. Speaking of his time at Ajax he says, “I played the last man in defence, the libero. Michels made this plan to play very offensive football”.
McLintock was quite a bit older, joining QPR at 33 but by his own recognition enjoyed an “Indian summer in West London”. The Scot also came with international caps and as the man who’d led Arsenal to glory in the Fairs Cup in 1970 and the Double a year later. He says he was instructed to play “the Beckenbauer role” (or libero) by Sexton and would often be the man to play the ball out and start an offensive move. Sexton had found his own Vasović.
In order to play this brand of total football, it helped that Michels and Sexton had a raft of technically gifted players at their disposal. Many recognise Gordon Jago, Sexton’s predecessor as the man responsible for getting the players to that standard. McLintock points out that Jago encouraged the players “to spend twenty minutes each day in groups of four, playing with the ball, keeping it off the floor and honing skills.” Therefore, for McLintock, “Jago deserves all the credit for laying the sound foundations that Dave Sexton so stylishly built on”.
Sexton’s QPR team were certainly the dynamic force he wanted them to be; 11 out of the 16 outfield players used in the Division that season got on the score sheet. Programmes from the era refer to them as ‘The Team of All Talents’, an apt title. The full-back pairing of Ian Gillard on the left and Dave Clement on the right were classic components of the total football system and would bomb forward and cut inside to assist in offensive play. David Webb formed a solid defensive partnership alongside McLintock; unsurprisingly, the only side to concede more goals in 1975/76 was Liverpool.
Further up the pitch, there was an abundance of creative talent. In midfield, Masson proved a real revelation and he was an ever-present that season. Next to him was Gerry Francis, a hugely talented footballer who captained the side at the age of 23. His goal in the 2-0 victory against Liverpool on opening day was a sign of things to come; the ‘pass and move’ fluidity of QPR’s play saw it rewarded as the BBC’s Goal of the Season. That Don Revie made him England captain in September was testimony to what was happening in west London. Francis was also the player closest to Sexton; the pair would spend hours talking about tactics after training.
Up front, Rangers were blessed with the mercurial renegade Stan Bowles at the peak of his powers. The happy-go-lucky forward was a key part of Sexton’s side, who knew he could get the best out of him despite his party animal reputation. Bowles was a creative player and would sometimes be given a free role. In this respect, it is perhaps not too outlandish to see him as the Johan Cruyff of the team. Cruyff was the archetypal ‘total footballer’ and could create and score with equal success. Like Cruyff, Bowles was exciting to watch and a crowd-pleaser - a maverick in every sense of the word. A fantastic quote survives from Alan Hoby’s match report on QPR’s 5-0 win over Everton at Loftus Road: “If Francis, Masson and [Mike] Leach were the three musketeers of Rangers’ triumphant midfield then Bowles was the team’s swaggering D’Artagnan”.
Off the pitch too, Sexton drew upon what he had learnt from the ‘Dutch masters’ and put it into great use. He was aware that all aspects of a player’s lifestyle contributed to how they performed on match day. Therefore, there were important changes to diet and exercise routine. Masson thrived off it, he says, “He was an unbelievable coach…Our training techniques were so ahead of their time. We used to have Ron Jones, the old Olympic sprinter, come down and take us through our paces. All that sort of fitness training that they do these days was unheard of then, but we were doing it. We used to have dieticians and everything, we were having scrambled eggs and fish before meals while everyone else was having steaks.”
For match preparation, Sexton would show his players videos that he painstakingly put together himself. Dave Thomas, the team’s skilful left winger, remembers, “He used to collect cine films of old ‘60s football and he’d sit us all down and say ‘I’m going to show you a video on tackling or crossing, or scoring goals from outside the box’ and Dave would spend hours at home in Brighton editing all this together himself. He was so far ahead of his time it was untrue”.
Over the course of the season, Sexton saw his philosophy take shape on the pitch with great effect. QPR went the whole season unbeaten at home and there were some great wins, perhaps the best being a 5-1 victory away to the Champions Derby, with Bowles scoring a hat-trick. They were a breath of fresh air in the First Division and were rightly praised for their ambition to play aesthetic football. After defeating QPR 3-2 in April, Norwich manager John Bond said, “You have to admire them. They have come a long way. They have built a fine team and a fine stadium. It will be marvellous for them and for the game if they do it”. Tragically though, it was not to be. Perhaps if they had pulled it off, we would be talking about Sexton in the same breath as Paisley, Shankly and Clough.
Instead, it all rather petered out. Sexton got his dream of playing in Europe, in the UEFA Cup, with QPR getting knocked by AEK Athens in the Quarter Finals on penalties. They scored a remarkable 26 goals along the way. They couldn’t repeat their heroics in the League either, falling to 14th in the 1976/7 season. In May 1977, Sexton left QPR to join Manchester United. It would also prove a bittersweet relationship as he spent four seasons there without a major trophy and another disappointment of coming second best to Liverpool in 1980.
Perhaps Sexton’s greatest material success was as England U-21 manager, winning the UEFA U-21 Championship twice in 1982 and 1984. This was also the perfect platform to instil some of his wisdom on young, impressionable minds. He also remained in an important position of influence at the FA, becoming the first Technical Director at the FA's National School at Lilleshall in 1984.
To conclude, here’s Sexton’s opening page from his coaching manual, Tackle Soccer. He is musing on the Robert Frost poem ‘Fireflies in the Garden’ which is about stars and fireflies,
“I want to be reliable, to be thought of as reliable. The poem points to a star which is reliable. It’s always there. What I do not want is to be like is the firefly which, at times, achieves starlike start but fails to sustain the part. That is what I want to impart to my players. Be like the star…not the firefly”.
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