Aidan Smith: Meeting Celtic legend Tommy Gemmell

Ex-Scotland and Celtic Player Tommy Gemmell. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Ex-Scotland and Celtic Player Tommy Gemmell. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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THE world changed in 1967 and I don’t mean the Summer of Love, the sexual revolution and letting it all hang out. Rather I’m talking about socks and letting them all drape round your ankles.

After Tommy Gemmell horsed upfield in Lisbon with hosiery untethered, and especially after he scored with that thundercrack shot, my entire school playground recreated the look and, with mangy tennis balls, tried their darnedest to recreate the goal as well.

For the life of me, or all ten short-trousered years of it up until that point, I cannot remember how I amused myself before Celtic won the European Cup. Presumably there were cowboys involved, injuns too, and the dog-eared membership card for The Man From UNCLE Fan Club which turned up recently hints at an interest in espionage. But inspired by that game and that goal, the days took on a more definite shape: football, football and more football. Imagine my excitement, then, when I find myself in Dunblane, about to knock on the door of my original hero.

He’s slow to appear; Big Tam’s horsing days are over. But while the knees are knackered the mind is still in decent nick. He reels off a Celtic training session that to him felt more like a punishment: “A lap of Parkhead, then ten 220-yard dashes, then ten 100s, then ten 50s.” He produces a good word – “speechifying” – to describe the tedium of yet another official welcome on a Celtic tour of America, which drove him and Bertie Auld to the bar, resulting in the pair being ordered home. And his impressions are pretty good as well. “Jock Stein, when he was angry with me, used to fire out his big left arm: ‘Just you bloody remember – you’re a defender first and foremost!’ ”

Gemmell, 71 next month, also produces a bottle of Chilean white on this balmy late summer’s afternoon, but for once he is not expected to talk about Celtic and Lisbon and making immortal right-foot contact with a football. Will his jovial mood change when I bring up the name of Helmut Haller?

“Ah,” he says, peering down his specs at me. “You mean when I booted him up the arse?” Scotland have a big game in Dortmund tomorrow night; 45 years ago in Hamburg the stakes were even higher. Qualification for the Mexico World Cup was the dream, West Germany were leading 3-2, and with three minutes left we desperately needed an equaliser. Gemmell opened his legs and showed his intent. Suddenly he was within Lisbon range. “And just as I was about to hit it the bugger tripped me.”

Gemmell’s reaction, again with that celestial right foot, has gone into legend and become the second most-famous event in a 16-year career. “Oh dear!” commentator Archie MacPherson expostulated. “Oh dear!”

Big Tam from Craigneuk, Lanarkshire gave chase and Haller bolted but the German wasn’t quick enough, Gemmell again catching his “shot” to perfection. It got him sent off and there were consequences from his actions which we will cover shortly, but first he wants to go back over his Scotland career up until that moment, the highs and lows which went with his 18 caps.

Eighteen doesn’t sound a lot for – Stein’s description – “the greatest left-back in the world” but there were fewer international matches in the second half of the 1960s, especially when you repeatedly failed to qualify for anything. In front of a fantastic Hampden crowd of 123,052, Gemmell made his dark-blue debut against England in the old British Championship, three months before Bobby Moore would lift the Jules Rimet trophy. “That was a very proud day for me but despite two goals from Jinky we lost 4-3.” Jimmy Johnstone was one of his great pals. They signed for Celtic on the same night in ’61, Gemmell narrowly escaping a junior engineer’s position at Ravenscraig, and a photograph of the pair on the road to Lisbon stands as one of the era’s most evocative. Both in Dukla Prague shirts, the big yin is holding the wee yin aloft. Gemmell, left arm outstretched, may even be mimicking Stein.

After Scotland missed out in ’66 there was a bit of a clear-out and Gemmell was among those charged with doing better next time. Did he watch England’s triumph? “I did, but with fear and trepidation. The Anglos in the Scotland team told the rest of us they’d never hear the end of it if the English won.” That summer he went on a Celtic tour of the US that was far more enjoyable than the speechifying one, and a great deal more significant. “We really bonded on that trip and what laughs we had. Bertie [Auld] and me, being Proddies, would torment all the Catholics on Fridays with big juicy steaks. They of course had to stick to fish.” Bonded and blended, with Stein fine-tuning the dynamic attacking formation which in the new season would scoop all the available prizes. Celtic were 11 games unbeaten on that tour and Gemmell mentions a 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich in San Francisco. “If I remember right, wee Gerd Müller played in defence. The other notable thing about that game was Stevie Chalmers not being happy about a Müller tackle and chasing him all over the park. See, even the quietest men in the world can be provoked!”

An ever-present for Celtic in the ’66-’67 glory season, Gemmell would limber up for Lisbon history with Wembley history and Scotland’s unofficial world-champs victory, although he chortles as he recalls the lead-up to that game, indeed all his internationals.

“I loved playing for my country,” he says, “but it was very frustrating because we lacked guidance and with the great players we had at the time Scotland should have done a whole lot better.” After John Prentice and Malky MacDonald came Bobby Brown as the managers in Gemmell’s international career. “Bobby was the nicest man you could meet, a smashing guy, but before the 3-2 game all he said, in that polite voice of his, was: ‘Now boys remember; this is England you’re playing. Go out there and enjoy yourselves.’

“It was up to the guys to sort out the tactics. ‘You mark him, you fill in that area.’ During the match we kept shouting to each other. Ronnie McKinnon was in the team: great in the air, fast enough to have won the Powderhall Sprint, but no’ the brainiest. We had to point to where he should have been. ‘Ronnie, Ronnie, here he comes!’ ”

After that momentous result, manager Brown told his players: “Gentlemen, London belongs to you tonight!” He was boss for the rest of Gemmell’s caps, including a 2-0 friendly defeat by Russia. Didn’t he score an o.g. that night? “That was a great goal! I was trying to clear the ball and unfortunately it was a shot the Russkies would have been proud of.” While Gemmell admits the quiff was nicked from Tony Curtis, his shooting was all original. And then there was what’s known as The George Best Game, a 1-0 win for Northern Ireland in Belfast almost entirely fashioned by the the wing wizard. “George gave me a right hiding in the first half. Then he switched across and did the same to Eddie McCreadie.”

Another World Cup campaign loomed. Scotland were grouped with Austria and Cyprus as well as the Germans. Says Gemmell: “I know there’s this idea that Scotland games were just excuses for jollies. I admit they were a release from training with your club every day and after internationals we might have got pissed but only once the game was done. Beforehand there was no boozing, no philandering, no messing about.”

The Germans were obviously the big threats. There was a Hampden draw with the beaten finalists of ’66, Bobby Murdoch equalising a Müller score, but with two games left the rivals were almost dead level, even down to their 13-0 aggregate wins over the hapless Cypriots. “In the home game against Cyprus, Colin Stein had already scored four and I think he was going for a record [Hughie Gallacher was the only Scot to have netted five in an international] when we were awarded a penalty. There was no way I was giving Colin the ball. I desperately wanted to score for my country at the right end!” Gemmell’s record from 12 yards was 34 penalties netted, only three missed.

So: Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion. Our man doesn’t remember much in the way of a team-talk. “We knew what they’d been like at Hampden, which was pretty much what Germany are like now: bloody well-organised, bloody efficient. But we had a good team, too.” The line-up on 22 October 1969 was: Jim Herriot, John Greig, Big Tam, Billy Bremner, McKinnon, Billy McNeill, Jinky, Peter Cormack, Alan Gilzean, Eddie Gray, Stein.

After just three minutes, a goal by Jinky. “A great start and we played a good game throughout.” Even when Müller put the Germans ahead on the hour, Gilzean’s equaliser was almost immediate. Reinhard Libuda, the Schalke 04 winger nicknamed “Stan” after Sir Stanley Matthews, restored the hosts’ lead and then came Gemmell’s moment of madness.

“That was uncalled for,” tut-tutted Archie MacPherson. “I lost the heid,” he admits, “but it was sheer frustration. I was trying to score us a goal. Haller knocked me off my stride.” If you didn’t know the identity of the teams, you might have thought you were watching a match from deepest South America, where such comedy violence would be halted by the ref firing a pistol in the air, sparking a civil war. Twenty-five years later Fantasy Football League funsters Frank Skinner and David Baddiel recreated the episode with Gemmell’s help. But for the player, as we say, there were consequences.

Fifa suspended him, the SFA fined him – and back at Celtic he was dropped from the League Cup final team to play St Johnstone three days later. All told the kick cost him £700, a lot of money back then. “I shouldn’t have done it. I apologised to my team-mates after the game. I swapped shirts with Uwe Seeler but didn’t see Haller – I wouldn’t have said sorry to him anyway. Big Jock was there, part of the SFA party, but he didn’t say anything to me. I knew he wouldn’t be happy.” Straight off the plane the Celtic players in the squad were ordered to complete the aforementioned sprints. Gemmell only found out he was to miss the final when he saw Davie Hay getting stripped and a stand ticket was handed to him. He promptly asked for a transfer.

I ask him to describe his relationship with Stein. It’s complicated, as they say in the romcoms, and most of the Lisbon Lions would agree. “I wasn’t Jock’s favourite – that was Jinky – but he knew I could do a job for him,” says Gemmell. He was fond of shooting – pheasants, not just goals – and in the hope of keeping the boss sweet would always present him with a brace. “I would have been happy seeing out my days at Celtic but after Hamburg my relationship with Jock was never quite the same.”

Brian Clough tried to take Gemmell and Johnstone to Derby County and Barcelona fancied Tam, too. “I’d heard this from a journalist but Jock couldn’t know I’d been tapped. ‘Anyone inquiring about me, boss?’ I’d ask, once a month, but he’d shoo me away with that big left arm.” Eventually Gemmell did move, to Nottingham Forest, but he was soon back in Scotland and helping Dundee win the League Cup – against Celtic. “Jinky was a sub that day. When he came on I told him: ‘Any nutmegs and I’ll do you’. He turned to the dugout: ‘Boss, he’s threatening me’. Jock asked what I’d said, Jinky told him and he concluded that was fair enough! But when I went up as captain to collect the trophy I just felt embarrassed.”

Gemmell, twice married with a son and a daughter, retains a soft spot for Dundee, being pleased with their impressive return to the top division, because after finally hanging up those dynamite boots he became manager at Dens. Straight away he signed Johnstone, hoping to see some of his wee chum’s famed will o’ the wispness. He got it, but not on the pitch. “I had Jinky for three months and put him up in my hotel in Errol. But instead of coming into the Commercial for a couple of beers he was sneaking 100 yards down the road to the Central and getting blootered. And then he led my most talented youngster astray.”

This was Gordon Strachan, manager of Scotland for tomorrow’s showdown with the world champions. “This guy came into the hotel and said: ‘Two of your players are over the road and they’re absolutely smashed’. I said: ‘Who’s Jinky with?’ Gordon, who was only a boy, burst into tears. ‘I’m so sorry, boss’, he kept saying. I’ve reminded him of that day a few times since!”

Dundee were in dire financial difficulties before chairman Ian Gellatly told Gemmell to sell their prize asset to Aberdeen. “Try to get £30,000,” he was told. In fact, Tam managed to engineer a deal worth £80,000 to the Tayside club. “Ian smoked a pipe. When he got excited he sooked on it like mad.”

This is Gemmell’s final impersonation of the afternoon and the wine bottle is empty. His Scotland were rather less than the sum of their considerable parts; Strachan’s are a bit more. The latter’s old gaffer has been impressed by results thus far although says tomorrow will be the first proper test. But a win for Scotland? What a kick up the backside for the champs that would be.