One of the true greats of Scottish football, Tommy Gemmell was famed as one of the Lisbon Lions, the Celtic team that won the European Cup in 1967. He was one of the big characters of that great side, possessed of a thunderbolt shot and huge personality, and it was no surprise in the late 1960s that he was twice rated the best fullback in the world by the international press.
Gemmell was the eldest of four children of Alfie and Margaret, the others being his sisters Moira and Ann and his brother David.
Born in his grandmother’s house in Motherwell, Gemmell spent the first seven years of his life in the town. His father was a turner at the Dalziel steelworks, spending his entire working life there. His mother would take odd jobs to help out the family finances and Gemmell once recalled that while there was always food on the table, luxuries and treats were non- existent.
The family could not afford to buy or rent a house and they stayed with his grandmother and then his aunt in Motherwell – his first love was Motherwell FC – before moving to Craigneuk which he called the “finest football academy for which a youngster could have wished.”
He attended Craigneuk Primary School where he was soon making an impression on the football field, being picked for the school team at the age of just eight. He had to play some of his early games wearing wellington boots, but his father eventually secured a pair of football boots, albeit two sizes too big for him, as the youngster was clearly a very talented player and something of a brainbox, too – he became Dux at Craigneuk and then passed the dreaded ‘eleven plus’ exam which saw him go to the local senior secondary school, Wishaw High, rather than Wishaw Central junior secondary.
As a young teenager, he began playing for Meadow Thistle, a local amateur side. He started out on the right wing, and it was only after the team’s left-back did not turn up for a game that he made the switch to the position in which he became famous. Local junior club Coltness United then snapped him up.
On leaving Wishaw High, Gemmell started his working life as an apprentice electrician at Ravenscraig. His footballing prowess at school and in the amateur and junior ranks had been spotted by Celtic scout Eddie McArdle and he recommended the lanky 6ft 2ins defender to the club.
It may seem bizarre to the modern football fan accustomed to hearing of the high wages of modern players, but when he first joined Celtic in October 1961, Gemmell had to keep his day job at Ravenscraig as he was earning just £8 per week with Celtic – and that was very good money for a teenager. He would work and then train with Celtic, travelling back and forward by bus with his great friend Jimmy Johnstone from nearby Viewpark who had signed for Celtic on the same day as Gemmell – a very lucky day for the Parkhead club. The man who signed both of them was Sean Fallon, who would later be assistant manager to Jock Stein.
Celtic farmed him back out to Coltness Juniors to learn more about the game, but he would spend only one season there before he was brought back to Celtic to play initially for the reserves.
Training at that time at Celtic was rudimentary, consisting largely of lots of running around the pitch, supervised by coaches while manager Jimmy McGrory sat in his office. Gemmell quickly made his way through the reserves and into the first team, making his debut at the age of 19 against Aberdeen in a 5-1 victory on 5 January, 1963.
The following season he established himself in the first XI largely due to the fact that he could hoof the ball long out of defence, which was the way most Scottish teams played football at that time – some still do.
All that changed with the arrival of Jock Stein in March, 1965. One of the new breed of ‘tracksuit’ managers, Stein transformed the way the team trained and played and that was very good news for Gemmell as by late 1966, he and right-back Jim Craig had been made into the kind of overlapping attacking full-backs that modern football sees as standard.
Stein encouraged Gemmell to get forward and use his fierce shot as often as he could, and he hit it with some power – it was once timed electronically at 69mph.
It is often forgotten that all of the Lisbon Lions except for Willie Wallace were already at Celtic when Stein became the manager. His genius was to take good players and make them into great ones, playing together as a close-knit team in what became known as total football.
Gemmell would have ten years at Celtic in all, making 418 appearances and scoring 63 goals, of which 31 were penalties – he only missed three in his career. In all he won six league titles, three Scottish Cups, four League Cups and the European Cup. He was also capped 18 times for Scotland, including the famous 3-2 win over England at Wembley in 1967, and blamed Stein for not getting more as the Celtic manager didn’t like him playing for Scotland against ‘lesser’ nations than ours – there’s not many of them, now.
Gemmell’s most famous goal, of course, was in the European Cup final of 1967, the year when Celtic won all five tournaments they entered. Inter Milan, who were masters of the Italian defensive system known as catenaccio, got an early goal from the penalty spot but from then on it was one-way traffic. Celtic laid siege to the Italians’ goal in which goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti had an absolutely outstanding game. But even he could not stop Gemmell’s thunderbolt in the 63rd minute, making him the first British player to score in a European Cup final. Stevie Chalmers famously added the winner five minutes from time and Celtic became the first British and indeed the first non-Latin team to win the European Cup.
The Lisbon Lions would play on but there were new men in the team – notably David Hay and goalkeeper Evan Williams – by the time Celtic reached a second European Cup final in 1970. Against the Dutch side Feyenoord in Milan, Celtic had a rare off night, but Gemmell once again got his name on the scoresheet with a typical shot from outside the box making him one of only two British players to score in two European Cup finals, the other being Phil Neal of Liverpool.
Always one for a drink and a laugh, and forever playing up to his resemblance to screen star Danny Kaye, Gemmell was nevertheless a hard trainer. His relationship with the disciplinarian Stein deteriorated, however, especially after the player retaliated and kicked the behind of Helmut Haller of West Germany in a 1969 World Cup qualifying match, being sent off, then fined and suspended.
In 1971, Gemmell haggled over a new contract, and it emerged later that he was angry with Stein refusing to sell him to Barcelona. Instead Gemmell was sold to Nottingham Forest, where he did not prosper.
He had a brief spell in America’s soccer league with Miami Toros before returning to Dundee where, with supreme irony, he captained the club to victory over Celtic in the 1973 League Cup final.
Having taken over a hotel in Errol, he retired from playing to manage Dundee and he later had spells managing Albion Rovers before quitting the game and moving into the insurance business. Latterly as a match day host at Parkhead, he remained a huge hit with the Celtic supporters, many of them brought up on the true tales of his larger-than-life nature.
Gemmell was voted into the left-back position in Celtic’s Greatest Ever team as chosen by the fans in 2002 and was inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
His latter years saw Gemmell suffer ill-health due to diabetes and circulation problems, and last year he fell and broke his hip in an accident at his home in Dunblane. He is survived by his second wife Mary, by his brother and sisters, and by David and Karen, his children by Anne, his first wife.