Aidan Smith: Tommy Gemmell was our own domestic superstar

Boys are obsessed with the speed of things '“ grown men, too. I've never forgotten Reader's Digest telling me that a cheetah's top speed was 70mph. Or the fact-sheet with my Corgi model of James Bond's Aston Martin confirming that the real thing's best was 150mph. Or moon-shot guru James Burke in his groovy specs 'filling' during the Apollo longueurs with all kinds of info, the most vital of which was 24,791mph, the highest speed attained by any manned vehicle.
Tommy Gemmell in his mid-Sixties pomp at Celtic. Picture: SNSTommy Gemmell in his mid-Sixties pomp at Celtic. Picture: SNS
Tommy Gemmell in his mid-Sixties pomp at Celtic. Picture: SNS

Are boys still obsessed? My son is in the midst of a Lamborghini fad right now but, prompted by a rap song, this seems to be more about bling than zing as he’s never once asked me to find out how fast the car can travel. Then again, he isn’t growing up in the age of Tommy Gemmell so that may explain why he doesn’t have the same interest in velocity as his dad.

Strangely, I never knew how hard Gemmell could strike a football until reading his obituaries. Probably shots weren’t measured back in 1967. It would be difficult, wouldn’t it? You couldn’t wire up the ball and stop the play to check on strikes you thought might be nudging the all-comers’ best – that would be tedious. And nothing about Big Tam was tedious.

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“You’ll have a drink,” he said when I called on him in Dunblane in 2014. A bottle of Chilean white was produced, furtively, from underneath the coffee table, as if it had been secreted there, away from the disapproving eyes. His wine glasses were of the jumbo variety produced by a Swedish home furnishings giant which would get the Daily Mail in a tizzy about sinister foreign influence. Mine was filled right to the brim and, fearing spillage, I had to lean right over it for the first sook. Well, there was a lot to discuss although for once Lisbon wasn’t uppermost. Scotland were embarking on a World Cup campaign away to Germany so we mostly talked about his years of service in dark blue, the 18 caps, from the elation of beating England at Wembley to being left with twisted blood by Northern Ireland’s George Best – and a night of personal infamy in Hamburg.

Possibly Gemmell wouldn’t have minded, for the zillionth time, talking about Lisbon. That conspiratorial grin when he uncorked the wine became a signature of the afternoon. He made me feel like he was hearing my questions for the first time. He was hilarious and I can still see him impersonating Jock Stein: “When he was angry with me he’d fire out his big left arm: ‘Just you bloody remember – you’re a defender first and foremost!’” And regarding Helmut Haller and the boot up the backside in another World Cup qualifier against the old West Germany, which eventually led to that bloody left arm pointing the way out of Parkhead and Big Tam leaving Celtic, he just laughed.

Gemmell was of the generation of footballers who didn’t make much money from the game, who were seen but rarely heard. Terracings would be sardine-squashed and swaying for their performances but the newspapers were generally empty of their words. Now papers are full of playerspeak. Friday’s tributes to Gemmell were alongside what you might call the post-post-musings on the midweek games. Hud me back from the post-post-post-musings.

Old footballers talk in humble terms about their achievements. Only some got to write books back then. Big Tam was one. His was called The Big Shot, with a cover-photo much reproduced on Friday: an action pose against the backdrop of an empty Jungle, the scabby ball almost trembling because of the blootering that was fast coming its way.

My father, a BBC Scotland producer, had a chat-show called Saturday … Round About Sunday which was screened way past my bedtime but when Gemmell was the headline guest I got to stay up and watch, a signed copy of his book on my lap.

Stein called Gemmell “the best left-back in the world”. He was as close as our domestic game had to a superstar, if we used such terms, which we didn’t. We almost didn’t know what we had. Players grew up playing it in the streets, doing little else, not feeling deprived, but by today’s standards they were Third World.

For a truly humble hack, in awe of these guys, it was gripping social history when Dave Mackay told me how his parents in Edinburgh were almost terrified of their newly-installed telephone and couldn’t believe that it would ring during Sunday Night at the London Palladium; this was the call summoning him to Spurs.

It was gripping social history when Drew Jarvie told me about his young life in Annathill, a pimple of a place in Lanarkshire comprising just three streets where everyone was a miner. “So you must have been its first Scottish internationalist,” I said. No, Frank Brennan and Bobby Flavell, who ended up the semi-disgraced star of a cattle baron-funded pirate league in Colombia, were capped before him. Who knew? Not me.

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Nowadays there’s more recognition and celebration of old footballers, prompted by concern that they won’t be around for ever and an acknowledgement that, compared to recent times, their era really was special.

Clubs – neglectful before – are much better at looking after their ex-players, appointing them match-day hosts and even ambassadors. There’s an after-dinner circuit for those with the gift of the gab and even guys like John Fallon, Ronnie Simpson’s deputy at Celtic, get the chance to write books. What sights Fallon must have seen, such as Big Tam in 1967’s World Club Championship – the Battle of Montevideo – singling out the Racing Club player who’d spat in the faces of the entire Celtic defence and kicking him in the goolies.

Another great Scot with dynamite in his boots, Peter Lorimer, told me of a competition organised by an English newspaper to find the hottest shot. Bobby Charlton and Francis Lee were among those who assembled at a Midlands munitions factory to have their best efforts measured by a machine which normally tested bullet speed.

Lorimer won, but why wasn’t Gemmell invited to take part? That was a snub almost on a par with Jock Stein not getting a knighthood.

For the record, he was a 71mph man. His strikes to the buttocks and bollocks were sadly not logged.

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