Son of former professional boxer Archie Sexton, he started his playing career with West Ham United in 1948. Playing mainly at inside-forward, he would finish his career with time at Luton Town, Leyton Orient, Brighton and Hove Albion, and Crystal Palace. His biggest success came at Brighton, where he won the Third Division (South) Title in 1957–58.
Coaching and managerial careerSexton started off as a coach at Chelsea, before leaving to begin his managerial career at Leyton Orient in 1965. In 1966 he was appointed by Arsenal manager Bertie Mee as the Gunners' first-team coach, but a year later returned to Chelsea to become manager following the departure of Tommy Docherty. He led the club to FA Cup success in 1970 and the European Cup Winners' Cup a year later. Chelsea also reached the League Cup final in 1972, but lost to Stoke City. However, Sexton fell out with several players, including Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson, who were subsequently sold. This, combined with other problems at the club, ensured that Sexton did not come close to repeating his earlier success and early in the 1974–75 season - which ended in Chelsea's relegation - he was dismissed.
A few weeks later in October 1974 he was appointed manager of Queens Park Rangers as successor to Gordon Jago. With a team containing the likes of Stan Bowles and Gerry Francis, as well as players recruited from ex-club Chelsea, John Hollins and David Webb, Sexton took Rangers to within a point of the League title in 1975–76. The 3–2 defeat at Norwich City in their final away game of that season marked the end of a 14-match unbeaten run which had produced a spectacular 13 wins and one draw. They were top after playing their final home game versus Leeds United on 24 April 1976, but Liverpool's late 3–1 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers on 4 May 1976 denied them their first-ever league title. Still, second place was – and remains – their highest league finish. UEFA Cup qualification came as consolation for the place in the European Cup, which Liverpool went on to win a year later and retain the year after that. Sexton would soon find himself taking charge of a side posing a more consistent threat to the dominant Liverpool of that era.
He took over at Manchester United – again succeeding Tommy Docherty – in the summer of 1977 but his reign was characterised by dour football and he was not popular with the fans. In appointing Sexton it appeared as if the United board had again opted for safety following the tumultuous tenure of Docherty (sacked for having an affair with the wife of the club's physiotherapist), whose four-and-a-half-year spell had overseen relegation from the First Division but an immediate comeback followed by high league finishes and completed with an FA Cup triumph in the season before Sexton's appointment.
His reign at Old Trafford failed to deliver any trophies and in the pressured atmosphere that was engulfing United, Sexton seemed an inevitable casualty. The highlight was an FA Cup final appearance in 1979, losing 3–2 to Arsenal in a dramatic match, and finishing as league runners-up to Liverpool in 1979–80.
His signings brought mixed success. Midfielder Ray Wilkins was bought from Chelsea in 1979 and soon established himself as one of Europe's finest midfielders, and striker Joe Jordan scored more than 50 goals in three years after arriving from Leeds United in 1978. On a less positive note, Sexton paid a club record £1.25million for Nottingham Forest striker Garry Birtles in 1980, but a player who had been one of the country's finest goalscorers with his old club failed to find the net once in 25 league appearances during the 1980–81 season. In a television documentary more than a decade later, Sexton defended Birtles's performances by claiming that he had played "very well" for United, but hadn't been able to find the back of the net.
Sexton was dismissed on 30 April 1981, despite having won his final seven games in charge, as United had finished eighth in the league and Sexton had now been in charge of them for four seasons without winning a major trophy. The FA Cup final appearance two years earlier and the narrow second place finish behind Liverpool a year earlier was of little consolation to United fans, who felt that "nearly" was nowhere near good enough.
He then managed Coventry City for two years (preserving their top flight status) before leaving in 1983 to go into semi-retirement.
Sexton also had a very successful period as coach of the England's Under-21 side, and won the UEFA Under 21's Championship twice, in 1982 and 1984. After that he went on the become the FA's first Technical Director at the FA's National School at Lilleshall in 1984. He also wrote a book on coaching a soccer team for coaches of all levels called "Tackle Soccer."
He later lived in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, where in 2008 he was commemorated with a new building in the town centre. He lived in Kenilworth after becoming Coventry City manager in 1981 and the building in his honour, Sexton House, is a refurbished building divided between shops and offices.
- West Ham United
- Second Division (1): 1954–55
- Brighton & Hove Albion
- Third Division South (1): 1957–58
- FA Cup (1): 1969–70
- European Cup Winners' Cup (1): 1970–71
- Manchester United
- FA Charity Shield (1): 1977 (shared)
- England Under-21
- UEFA U21 Championship (2): 1982, 1984
- OBE (services to football): 2005