Tommy Gemmell: The Celtic full-back who took role to the future

One of the greatest accolades that can be paid to any footballer is that he helped redefine the game. Tommy Gemmell was such a footballer. One of the men who undoubtedly put the swash into the buckle of the Lisbon Lions, the loss of the 73-year-old yesterday following a long illness must have left his team-mate and friend Jim Craig feeling like the surviving member of a double-act.
Tommy Gemmell, Bertie Auld and Billy McNeill hoist the European Cup in 1967. PictureTommy Gemmell, Bertie Auld and Billy McNeill hoist the European Cup in 1967. Picture
Tommy Gemmell, Bertie Auld and Billy McNeill hoist the European Cup in 1967. Picture

Gemmell marauding down the left flank from his full-back role and Craig doing likewise from that berth on the right made Celtic a British team like never before – who in 1967 cemented that status by becoming the first non-Latin winners of the European Cup.

Craig, who describes himself as “the keeper” of his Celtic room-mate – through being entrusted to keep ensuring a Gemmell “not the best” with punctuality made it on time to training sessions, team buses and meetings on trips – can recall how it was a Latin influence that allowed the two full-back to sashay forward with menace, on what became known as the overlap.

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The gung-ho Gemmell with blunderbus shooting ability that frames memories of his playing legend simply did not exist until Jock Stein took over Celtic in 1965 – and masterminded a period that delivered the club into an inconceivable promised land after it had seemed destined to reside in a permanent wilderness.

“I remember Tam telling me that one of the coaching staff that was there before Jock once said to him before a game that if he crossed the halfway line he would be out of the team the next week,” said Craig, pictured below.

“Tam and I were the athletic types who would be centre-halves in those days, and so we were expected to play like them because we were just seen as other elements of the defence. That meant getting the ball and passing to someone else without automatically moving forward.

“But Jock changed all that. He told me that after he watched the 1960 European Cup final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden, he recognised that for a team to be successful using every component, all players within it bar the the centre-half – with Real that was Jose Santamaria – had to be able to contribute to attacking outcomes. The players were there at Celtic to do that, and with Tam it absolutely worked out like that because he was one of the best full-backs Celtic have ever had.”

The demands of a role that was defence-cum-attack were considerable for Celtic’s full-backs, but Stein had only one real demand of a twosome that were, effectively, auxiliary wingers and who created a template for those berths that has been followed to this day.

“It took its toll on us both eventually with Jock saying: I don’t care how often we went forward – as long as you come back.”

That Gemmell went forward with menace is reflected in the fact that he scored 67 Celtic goals. An altogether fitting total for one of only two players – John Clark the other – who played in every single game of Celtic’s all-conquering season. All the more so because his strike to draw Celtic level against Internazionale at the Estadio Nacional in the Portuguese capital will forever be his most famous scoring contribution, setting Stein’s men on their way to a 2-1 triumph.

Three years later, he scored in the European Cup final lost to Feyenoord that led to the memorable exchange often recalled by Martin O’Neill when Gemmell moved to Nottingham Forest, where the Irishman was then coming through the ranks. “Tell us about your European Cup final goal?” the callow O’Neill asked. “Which one son?” came Gemmell’s reply.

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A typical response from an ebullient character within a Lions squad that could have been a gang show, such was the preponderance of sharp-witted showmen. Too many, indeed, for Gemmell to wear his European Cup final exploits as a badge of honour.

“He took it all in his stride, he wasn’t one to crow about his achievements, among us. He wouldn’t dare because he would have been cut down to size pretty quick and reminded of his mistakes,” said Craig.

“The great thing about Tam was that he had enormous confidence – which he showed in taking penalties with aplomb whatever the circumstances. And not for him any difficult hours just before any big European tie, when nerves would affect most of us as we clock-watched anxiously. In our room I would look round and he would have dropped off and be snoring his heid aff.”

Gemmell, one of whose 18 Scotland caps came as a member of the side victorious at Wembley in 1967, didn’t let ting sleeping dogs lie on certain moments in his career. In his autobiography Lionheart published in 2012 – one of three career accounts the Lanarkshire man had published – he went public on his bitterness with Stein over being dropped for the 1971 League Cup final against St Johnstone following his infamous booting of Helmut Haller up the backside while playing for Scotland.

Gemmell would have considered there was a certain poetic justice in the fact that he three years later captained Dundee to a League Cup triumph over Celtic. He later went on to manage Dundee before a spell in charge of Albion Rovers.

In the same tome, Gemmell also reveals that, as a Protestant, he was the victim of sectarian abuse in his earlier years at Celtic from team-mates who favoured an all-Catholic side. Craig said: “When you have 17 or 18 players you are not going to have a group where everyone is everyone else’s best friend. That is impossible. But we had a camaraderie that none of us ever wanted to break.”

Gemmell was upset by his ties being broken with Celtic in December 1971, only two months after his League Cup final banishment. Yet, Celtic never really left him thanks to the enduring bond with the Lisbon Lions, and the enduring lustre of that side in Celtic club lore.

Mortality has confronted that group, with the death of Gemmell following the pasing of Jimmy Johnstone, Bobby Murdoch, Ronnie Simpson and Stein, while Billy McNeill was revealed this weeek to be suffering from Alzeheimers.

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“There was a certain grace from God in Tam being taken from us because he suffered much in recent years,” said Craig. “I went to see him on Monday and Tuesday this week, and it was difficult, for him and his family. But he never complained.”