''I Believe In Fairies'' - The Life And Times Of The Irrepressible Brian Clough

It is 17 years since the death of one of the great sporting icons
08:02, 20 Sep 2021

Brian Clough wasn’t just one of the most quotable managers in English football’s long history, he was one of the very best it has ever known too.

His acerbic wit made for some of football’s greatest quotes, and all the while he was achieving sensational feats with clubs who had previously been neglected, forgotten outposts on the sporting map. Even 17 years on from his death, his achievements loom large over his former clubs.

Clough became a prolific centre-forward in his playing days with Middlesbrough and Sunderland, scoring 267 goals in 296 club games, but earned only two England caps due to the likes of Bobby Charlton and Jimmy Greaves dominating the national scene ahead of him. “I got one or two goals a season, give or take the odd 30,” Clough would later say when asked to reflect on his playing feats.

His early retirement due to torn medial and cruciate ligaments suffered while playing for Sunderland on Boxing Day 1962 meant that Clough made an early start on his true calling of management. He was only 30 when he was handed the reigns at Fourth Division side Hartlepools United, then known for being the perennial basement-dwellers having been forced to apply for re-election five times in the previous six seasons.

Even in his first job, Clough was already developing a reputation for being different to other managers. He would visit local pubs asking for financial help for the club, and even sought to attain a bus drivers’ licence so that he might drive the team to away matches to save some money.


He was sacked by Pools in 1966… briefly. Chairman Ernest Ord had decided to release Clough’s assistant Peter Taylor, and when Brian complained he was fired too. The board came to the rescue though, refusing to pass Ord’s motion and ousting the chairman, placing Clough and Taylor back in their roles.

They would be gone for good the following summer after being invited to lead Second Division side Derby County, who, like Hartlepools, had spent years in the relative wilderness. What followed was one of the most phenomenal stories in English football history.

Clough changed everything about the club, retaining only a handful of the players he inherited and sacking a number of club workers including the chief scout and the groundskeeper. If modern legend is to be believed, he even fired a pair of tea ladies who he caught giggling in a corridor shortly after a Derby defeat.

Whatever he did, it worked. They won the Division Two title in 1969 and finished fourth in their first season back in the top flight, with many then tipping them to win the championship before long. Asked by ITV if he would become unbearable should he win the title with Derby, he insisted, "No, I'll become the most lovable character that you've ever met in your blinking life." It took him only two more years to achieve the incredible, leading Derby to their first-ever league championship success in 1972. Clough called it "one of the miracles of the century".

By now he was becoming a huge personality away from the field. He had a regular guest slot on ITV's 'The Big Match' and he outspoken opinions drew the attention far and wide. Muhammad Ali even recorded a video message to him at one point proclaiming that Clough talked too much because people were starting to call him 'another Muhammad Ali'. When asked if he was going to heed the warning and tone it down, Clough laughed, "No, I want to fight him!"

Yet, despite the success, his unique style was causing issues. That August Clough first refused to lead the club on their pre-season tour of the Netherlands and West Germany - sending Taylor to oversee the trip instead - since he wasn’t allowed to take his family with him. He and Taylor then signed Leicester City’s David Nish for a club-record transfer fee without first consulting the Derby board or chairman Sam Longson.

Clough began broadsiding seemingly everyone and anyone in the game, from the Derby board and the club’s supporters to figures at rival clubs like Manchester United manager Matt Busby and particularly Leeds boss Don Revie, whose aggressive style of football was far from Clough’s taste. "They've been champions, but they've not been good champions," he had said of the all-conquering Leeds.

He ended up resigning - along with Taylor - in October 1973 after the pair’s attempt to topple Longson as chairman had failed, their relationships at the Baseball Ground having reached a point of toxicity. Asked about Longson's statement accepting their resignations, Clough said his reaction was "one of nausea". Stunningly, he and Taylor would reemerge in the third tier with Brighton & Hove Albion, but Clough would leave less than a year later for an infamously short spell with Leeds United, replacing Revie, who had taken the England manager’s job.

Now the subject of the book and film ‘The Damned United’, his reign at Elland Road was destined for failure, with his apparent obsession with ridding the club of all its traits under Revie leading to a huge rift between Clough and the players. Infamously, he started his first training by telling the players to dump their medals in the bin, saying they had been won by "cheating". After just one win in eight games, Clough was a goner only 44 days later.

He went straight on to Yorkshire TV for an interview with presenter Austin Mitchell, and it just so happened that Revie was invited along too to have his own say on his successor, calling Clough "a fool unto himself".

"Obviously to be sacked, as you profoundly put it, is very sad for me personally and I also believe a very sad one from Leeds Football Club's angle and from the Leeds city," said Clough. "Seven weeks is hardly a long time to be given a chance in any job, I would hope that Mr Revie would get a lot longer in his job. I believe in a different concept of football to Don. It can be played slightly different to the way that Don plays it and get the same results, I'm a little bit of an idealist, I do believe in fairies and that is my outlook... I want to be like me."

He would spend the rest of his career creating new history with Nottingham Forest but it rankled with him that he was never offered the England job at any point. “I’m sure the England selectors thought if they took me on and gave me the job, I’d want to run the show,” he once said. “They were shrewd, because that’s exactly what I would have done.” 

At Forest he took just 16 months to take them back into the First Division, and in their first season back at the top he led them to their one and only league championship. That would lead the way to an incredible 24-month spell during which they would win back-to-back European Cups in 1979 and 1980, with Trevor Francis and John Robertson netting winning goals against Malmo and Hamburg respectively.


There were more minor successes to follow in the League Cup, and Forest became a fixture in the top half of the top flight in a way they had never previously experienced. And Clough remained his usual, combative self. In 1989 he caused uproar by hitting a number of Forest fans who had run onto the pitch following a match against QPR, his problems with alcohol beginning to truly affect his demeanour. He would later apologise to those he had struck, handing them League Cup final tickets in front of TV cameras and even asking for a kiss on the cheek from each.

His final season as a manager would be a hugely disappointing one, as Forest finished bottom of the inaugural Premier League. “If the BBC ran a Crap Decision of the Month competition on Match of the Day, I’d walk it,” he exclaimed at one point as he admitted that decisions he had made had played a part in their relegation.

Clough died of stomach cancer on 20 September 2004, with his later years having been blighted by liver problems caused by years of drinking. “To put everyone’s mind at rest, I’d like to stress that they didn’t give me George Best’s old liver,” he had quipped after having a liver transplant in 2003.

In retirement, as in management, Brian Clough came across as a hard but fair man who was unafraid to give his honest opinion on any topic, football or otherwise. Maybe he ended up with fewer regrets that way, even if one stood out for the man himself...

“I regret telling the entire world and his dog how good a manager I was. I knew I was the best but I should have said nowt and kept the pressure off because they’d have worked it out for themselves.”

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