x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Guidance of Dave Sexton vital to development of England's stars

It was a harsh, dog-eat-dog environment where only the strongest survived. The other lads were your teammates, yet you had to do better than them. You had to put yourself first.

Dave Sexton, right, had a big impact on the development of England's young footballers.
Dave Sexton, right, had a big impact on the development of England's young footballers.

There were times in my life when I really didn't like Dave Sexton, the former Chelsea, Manchester United and England Under 21 manager who died on Sunday at age 82.

Dave was in charge of the English Football Associations's School of Excellence at Lilleshall. The 14 best footballers in each age group in the country lived there for two years and, at the age of 14, I was chosen to be one of them.

Thousands of young footballers dreamed of making it to Lilleshall and Dave had the final say in who made the cut.

He was the man in charge and selected me, which was a big boost coming from someone whose last job had been as manager of Manchester United.

He saw something in me as a footballer and I'm grateful for the chance he gave me.

Despite being quiet, private and uncomfortable in the media glare off the field, Dave was an old-school coach who shouted and bellowed on it.

I found Lilleshall tough and I wasn't the only one. Two of the boys couldn't handle it and quit. There were days when I was so homesick that I wanted to leave, too.

Moving away from home to the regime at 14 was difficult and I missed my friends and family.

We would spend the days in a local school, where the other kids didn't like us because they were jealous of the attention we received, especially from girls.

We would go back from school and train for 90 minutes, before doing homework. There was no cutting corners, no slacking. Weekends were spent playing football.

Dave was a hard, fit man. His father has been a professional boxer and he was built like one. He'd joke with us and shadow box. If he hit you on the arm you knew about it.

If he didn't think that I was putting in the effort in training, he'd take me off the pitch and make me run around it for an hour. I was trying my best and thought it was counterproductive. I still do, but Dave was old school.

He'd been forged through discipline and through being a football man, but for all the talk of searching for technical excellence that you had then and you still have now, if the weather was cold and the pitches were frozen we did nothing but run. There were no indoor facilities and the provision could have been much better.

Dave knew everything about football and gave me solid advice. "You've got talent," he'd say to me. "You can be a really good footballer. Don't throw it away."

He liked his sides to pass and attack, which suited me. And I stuck at it. I had already signed schoolboy forms with Arsenal on my 14th birthday in the front room at home, but that meant little. Of the 14 players in my age group at Lilleshall, only three made it as professional footballers.

Dave also had great contacts. He used to bring along professional players to show us how it was done.

One day, the former Aston Villa striker Peter Withe came in to show us how to head the ball. Withe was the real deal, he'd scored the winning goal in the European Cup final for Aston Villa.

He headed the ball harder than most people kick it. I was in awe of this talent. I never could head the ball like Withe, but I always aimed to head it like him.

Looking back, that experience at Lilleshall gave me a good grounding. It was like being a football apprentice at 14, two years before most football apprentices.

It was a harsh, dog-eat-dog environment where only the strongest survived. The other lads were your teammates, yet you had to do better than them. You had to put yourself first.

Dave was right to pull me up when I messed about because I was there to learn to be a footballer, not enjoy myself, though I didn't always see it like that at the time and there were days when I woke up and thought: "I can't face today but I really need to get through this." And I did.

The last time I saw him I was with the full England team. He came over and we had a lovely chat.

"Told you I was right," he said. "You had the talent and you realised it. You're now playing for England. Well done."

I thanked him for his help and guidance and we shook hands. He was right and I remember him with gratitude and respect.

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of the European correspondent Andy Mitten.

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