The national U21 manager’s impressive credentials meant he was a serious candidate for the main Scotland job. Here he explains what makes him tick in a feature that appears in issue 8 of Nutmeg, a long-form publication devoted entirely to every aspect of Scottish football.
One is about to move in with his girlfriend. Another is buying a house. The guy next to them has just found out he is going to be a father. His club-mate has just signed a handsome new contract. The fella opposite reckons he should have been in the senior squad. All of them are in the Estadi Comunal in Andorra, playing for the Scotland under-21 team in a European Championship qualifier. It’s late March, and it’s cold, wet and windy. The pitch is tight and rutted. And they are being buffeted by determined, physical opponents. Subconsciously, some switch off, their levels dropping by only a couple of per cent, but enough to give their limited but committed hosts the impetus to claim an unexpected point.
Scot Gemmill watches from the sidelines. The coach sees the almost imperceptible dip but is powerless to affect it. He has long since made his uneasy peace with the fact that young players will let him down from time to time.
Sometimes it’s physical – the fact they can’t yet trust their fitness or technique. But often it’s mental – kids thrust into an unforgiving environment without the wherewithal to handle the pressures, the money, and the attention. “Games like that are the real test of which of them will have a career,” says Gemmill, speaking a few weeks after the draw. “The brutal assessment is that a few won’t. They are all being given excuses to lose that hunger and some of them can’t sustain it.”
The 47-year-old is softly spoken, but his words are hard for his players to hear. After all, each will likely have been the best player in his scheme, at his school, and in the underage ranks at his club. Granted, their first-team managers might have doled out the odd harsh word, but their progress to date will have been largely serene.
A similar sentiment could be applied to Gemmill. His management career is now approaching 100 games and his record is hugely impressive. Four qualifications for the Under-17 European Championship finals. One semi-final appearance. Wins over Brazil, Germany, Netherlands, Mexico and the Czech Republic at various age levels. All underpinned by his own 75 call-ups for Scotland, his three tournament experiences, and years working under Brian Clough. Indeed, several clubs have been in touch, albeit Gemmill has waved them away out of loyalty to the Scottish FA.
In other hands, all that would have been a pretty persuasive job application when Gordon Strachan left as national team coach. Particularly in the light of the fact England, Germany and Spain, among others, have a former under-21 coach in charge of the full side. And especially as the last two men to lead Scotland to a major championships – Andy Roxburgh and Craig Brown – also honed their abilities with the age-group teams.
But despite earning 26 caps for the national team, working with around half of the current senior squad in the past few years, and descending from Scottish football royalty, Gemmill’s profile is so understated that he could wander down most streets in Scotland unrecognised. As the under-21s coach, he doesn’t even have a desk at the national stadium, so the chances of him being entrusted with the senior team by the current politically dysfunctional Scottish FA hierarchy were always remote, even if he was fleetingly the favourite with the bookmakers.
The opportunity has passed for now, regardless, with Alex McLeish’s appointment, but Gemmill’s hopes of enhancing his reputation had been hindered by the aberration in Andorra; a result that leaves Scotland’s under-21s with two points from their last three games after a defeat and a draw at home against Ukraine and Latvia respectively. “I’m in the real world now,” Gemmill says ruefully. “It’s hugely frustrating but I don’t overthink it. I know my track record is really strong.”
That frustration is framed by the forever unanswered question about the purpose of age-group teams, and the under-21s most acutely. Is it to win matches or to develop players? Gemmill, predictably, is an advocate of the latter and could, were he minded, point towards the absence in Andorra of Kieran Tierney, Scott McKenna, and Oli McBurnie – all eligible for his squad, but spirited away by the senior side – as a factor in the poor performance. But instead he views their ascension, and that of the bulk of his backroom staff, as a badge of honour.
That attitude comes with the perspective of someone who has been there, even if his memories are more of tracksuits and technical areas than goals and glory. For every three squads in which Gemmill was named between 1995 and 2003, he earned only one cap and spent an average of 53 minutes on the pitch in each of those games. Still, he carried the hampers at Euro 92 and was in the squad for both Euro 96 and the World Cup two years later – even if his most notable contribution at the latter was sorting the boys from Primal Scream with tickets for the opening game against Brazil. “I loved it,” he says, resolutely refuting suggestions he might have grown bitter at his lack of game time. “I wanted to play for Scotland and it never entered my head not to go. You get to see the world, experience being with the team, and every time I wanted to play. My dad was captain of Scotland and I idolised him, but I wasn’t getting picked just because my surname was Gemmill. The cold, hard facts are that it was a hard team to get into. Nothing had to be said by the manager. I was intelligent enough to know the circumstances.”
Gemmill has never spoken to his players about his own career and refuses to “be one of those ex-footballers” but his rich story is one that deserves to be told, even if only in broad outlines. This, after all, is someone who spent his childhood sitting on the Nottingham Forest bench alongside Clough during the club’s glory years and used to accompany his father – assistant manager Archie – to scout teams.
Within a decade, he was winning cups at Wembley as a member of the Forest first team and found himself thrust into the midst of Britpop. “I was backstage at Knebworth; I think I was the only sober person there,” he says of one of the two feted 1996 Oasis gigs attended by an estimated 250,000 fans. “I’d scored the winner for Forest at Old Trafford a few years earlier. That was a massive result for Leeds and I was talking to James Brown, who edited Loaded magazine and was a Leeds fan, and he introduced me to [fellow Scot] Alan McGee, who was Oasis’ manager. It was a surreal situation for a young lad who was into his music, and saw Oasis play in Derby the same week they released their first single.”
Spells with Everton, Preston and Leicester followed before Gemmill retired and became “the sterotypical footballer who didn’t know what he could do but was terrified that he couldn’t do anything else”. Few of his contemporaries would have moved to New York, but Gemmill – who had visited every year since his late teens – and wife Ruth decided to spend the following six months going to gigs, art exhibitions and experiencing life as Manhattan residents, rather than tourists. “Thinking back, throughout that time my mind was racing because I knew I needed to do something. I’ve never sat down and thought about it but the six or seven months I was there did make a difference.”
His focus fixed, Gemmill then spent a year in Glasgow watching youth football and earning his coaching qualifications before a chance meeting in a public park with then national under-21 boss Billy Stark led to a part-time role with the Scottish FA in 2007. “I was doing my pro licence at the time,” he says. “But one day I just said to my wife ‘I want to go and watch Barcelona train every day so let’s go and rent an apartment there’. Thankfully she said yes...”
For the next 18 months, Gemmill had a fixed routine. Every day, he’d get the tram from the Pedralbes area of the city to the last stop on the line and watch Barca’s youth teams train. “I would peer through the fence,” he recalls of sessions containing players such as Sergio Roberto, Alex Grimaldo, Sergi Samper and Mark Muniesa. “It was fascinating and I was learning about coaching every day. I wasn’t working, and I knew I had to get better as a coach because my profile wasn’t high enough that someone was going to phone me up and give me a job.”
All the while, he was still helping out as the bibs and cones man with the Scotland under-17s and 19s. When Mark Wotte was appointed performance director in 2011, he asked Gemmill to take the under-15 team. “I wince when I think I had the cheek to be not sure about taking the job when I was first offered it,” he says. “I was so conscious about picking the right pathway that I thought long and hard about it. But now I’m lucky to work with the best young players in the country.”
The aberration in Andorra might not have been forgotten, but Gemmill is now looking to the new step, the next challenge. It is what he has always done.
Richard Winton is a senior digital journalist with the BBC Sport website.
This feature appears in Issue 8 of Nutmeg, a long-form publication devoted entirely to every aspect of Scottish football. It is published quarterly and is available via subscription at www.nutmegmagazine.co.uk