Dave Sexton is mainly remembered in the wider world as an FA Cup-winning manager with Chelsea, but in Sussex he will always be one of the heroes of the Albion team who won the Third Division South title in 1957/58, our first ever promotion.
And 65 years ago today, he scored a hat-trick against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, a feat no Brighton player has since equalled.
Islington-born Sexton made his name with West Ham United in the early 1950s. He arrived at the Goldstone from Leyton Orient in September 1957 for £2,000 and proved to be a resounding success, scoring 18 goals in 26 appearances over the rest of the season, including one on his debut in a 3-2 win away to Aldershot.
He was in a rich vein of scoring form when Albion arrived in London SE25 on November 23, having netted in a 4-2 win at Northampton then notched both goals in a 2-1 home victory over Walsall in the FA Cup first round a week before.
1,000 Albion fans had travelled by special train to watch the match, in which Albion wore an unfamiliar change kit of black and amber stripes. They did not have to wait long for a goal to cheer as Sexton, playing at inside-left, gave Albion the lead from close range in the eighth minute after Peter Harburn nodded down a cross from Frankie Howard.
Albert Mundy made it 2-0 after 27 minutes but with former England under-23 left back Syd Ellis making his debut at Selhurst after joining from Charlton Athletic, it took a while for the new defence to settle, and Palace hit back to level the scores at the interval through Bernard Harrison and George Cooper.
But with injured Palace forward Mike Deakin effectively a passenger in the days before substitutes, Albion made sure in the second half. Sexton restored the lead in the 57th minute at the second attempt after his own shot had been charged down, and he completed his hat-trick when Howard returned the ball into the middle from Dennis Gordon’s deep cross to the far post. The victory was the seventh of our eleven away wins in that glorious title-winning season.
Sexton was not finished with Palace, for whom he later briefly played. He scored again in the home match in March as Albion came from two down to win 3-2. And, to rub it in, his Chelsea team triumphed 4-1 at Selhurst on the way to lifting the FA Cup in 1970, a few weeks after winning the league fixture 5-1.
He scored his second hat-trick for the club just four weeks after the Selhurst treble, in a 5-2 home victory over Gillingham, and the goals continued to flow. Although injury meant he missed the final three games of the campaign, his replacement, Adrian Thorne, scored five times in the 6-0 promotion clincher against Watford, and Sexton spent his £300 promotion bonus on a trip to watch the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden.
However, he was back next season, scoring eight times in 23 games as Albion overcame the shock of a 9-0 defeat at Middlesbrough on the opening day to finish comfortably in mid-table at the higher level.
He dropped down two divisions to join Palace, who had become founder-members of the old fourth division, in summer 1959 but a knee injury forced his retirement and an early entry into the coaching career at which he would excel, managing Chelsea, QPR, Manchester United, Coventry City and the England under-21 team as well as becoming the first technical director of the FA’s school of excellence.
While at West Ham he had come under the influence of Ron Greenwood and a group of teammates who would go to a local café after training to talk football. Many, such as Malcolm Allison, John Bond, Noel Cantwell and Frank O’Farrell, would also coach and manage at the top level.
Sexton was a man of contradictions, summed up by the fact that he was the son of a professional boxer and a successful amateur pugilist himself, but later took a degree in philosophy.
A quiet and cerebral coach, he nevertheless produced flamboyant attacking teams full of characters. The Chelsea team that beat Leeds in a violent and ill-tempered FA Cup Final replay in 1970 and overcame Real Madrid, also in a replay, to take the 1971 European Cup-Winners’ Cup, featured Peter Osgood, Charlie Cooke and Peter Houseman, while his QPR side that finished runners-up to Liverpool in 1975-6 was a star-studded group of entertainers that included Stan Bowles, Dave Thomas, Don Givens and Gerry Francis.
He also took Manchester United to the FA Cup final in 1979, where they lost a memorable match 3-2 to Arsenal. But we feel sure you will agree that his Selhurst hat-trick deserves its place among his achievements in a glittering career.
(With thanks to Albion historian Tim Carder.)