Remembering Tommy Gemmell

It is now three years since Tommy Gemmell passed away. Thousands of mourners turned up to pay their final respects at Celtic Park in March 2017, for a man who goes down as one of the all time greats. A Lisbon Lion, Gemmell is one of very few players in world football to have scored in two separate European Cup finals – the fact he did so whilst playing at left back only adds to the extraordinary achievement.

Tommy Gemmell was born on 16 October 1943 at his Gran’s house in Motherwell. He started playing football for his school team, where he was used as a right winger until the point that his amateur team, Meadow Thistle, had no left backs available for one match. Needless to say, Gemmell excelled in the role and made the position his own, despite being right footed. He quickly went on to play play junior football and joined Celtic from Coltness United in 1961, having trained with the club on two evenings per week for some time. Incidentally, Gemmell signed provisional forms with Celtic on the same night as Jimmy Johnstone; the pair would of course become immortal at the club.

He was soon known at the club for his powerful shot, which he called the ‘dunk’. This eventually made him the first choice penalty taker, a role which gave him 31 of his 63 goals for Celtic, with Gemmell only missing three times from the spot. Aside of this, the left back wasn’t overly impressive during his early days at Celtic, yet that was about to change with the arrival of Jock Stein. Stein pushed Gemmell to achieve more, and quickly the boyhood Motherwell fan became known for his aggressive defending along with his explosive shot when breaking forward.

On 28 September 1966, Tommy Gemmell became the first Celtic player to score in the European Cup when he netted against FC Zurich at Paradise. However, he is immortalised for one of the most iconic moments in Celtic history, when he blasted home the goal that drew us level in the the European Cup final in 1967. He also scored in the 1970 European Cup final, with a free-kick piledriver. In addition to these goals, Gemmell scored in the World Club Championship 1967, making him one of an elite few footballers to have scored in more than one European Cup final, as well as a World Club Championship!

Tommy made his debut for Scotland in April 1966, losing 4-3 to England at Hampden. He won 18 international caps, scoring once, which is quite shocking considering that numerous football journalists and magazines around the world, not least in France, Hungary and Brazil – had named him the best full back on the planet in the 1960s and 70s! Perhaps emblematic of his Scotland career, Gemmell was best known on the international scene for the first sending off in his career, against West Germany in a crucial qualifying match in the late 1960s. Scotland lost the match 3-2, no thanks to Gemmell putting them at a numerical deficit when he chased an opposing player and kicked him up the backside. The incident was later recreated in a football sketch with comedian Frank Skinner. The hilarious footage can be seen here:

Tommy was an extrovert and fiery character on and off the pitch. He often challenged Jock Stein over player issues with pay, and first fell out with the manager in a row over his behaviour. Gemmell was fond of a drink and often got himself and others into trouble with the boss. A story told by The Celtic Star’s very own, Jim Craig, goes that prior to the League Cup final in 1969, Tommy was hanging about with the fans outside the ground and arrived in the changing rooms late. Therefore, Jock Stein had got frustrated with him and had decided to drop him. A year later, he full back was sent home by Stein during a tour of North America, for his behaviour and drinking! This sealed Gemmell’s fate and he was eventually moved on.

After leaving Celtic in December 1971, Gemmell spent two years at Nottingham Forest, playing alongside Martin O’Neill and John Robertson. He then spent three years at Dundee from 1973 to 1976, captaining the Dens Park side to a 1-0 win over Celtic in the League Cup final of December 1973, which shockingly saw him get abuse from sections of the Celtic support.

He retired in December 1976 and managed Dundee from 1977 until 1980. Whilst in the job, he signed Jimmy Johnstone, who was by then struggling with personal problems after leaving Celtic. After being sacked by Dundee, he managed Albion Rovers twice before he sought greater income. Not bequeathed with tremendous riches in his playing days, and working part time at the beginning of his football career, Gemmell moved into insurance sales in his late working days and gave up on the poultry wage offered in the lower echelons of Scottish football management.

A Celtic legend, he was a regular speaker at Celtic events and was/is adored by fans of Celtic beyond question. In 2002 he was voted by the fans into the club’s Greatest Ever team, which shows just how high he is regarded at Parkhead. Even his friend and foe, Jock Stein, once remarked that he was “The greatest left back in the world.”

His passing hurts all in Celtic circles, and today – the third anniversary of his passing – we should all take a moment to remember a magnificent character and an incredible player.

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About Author

Hailing from an Irish background, I grew up on the English south coast with the good fortune to begin watching Celtic during the Martin O'Neill era. I have written four Celtic books since the age of 19: Our Stories & Our Songs: The Celtic Support, Take Me To Your Paradise: A History Of Celtic-Related Incidents & Events, Walfrid & The Bould Bhoys: Celtic's Founding Fathers, First Season & Early Stars, and The Holy Grounds of Glasgow Celtic: A Guide To Celtic Landmarks & Sites Of Interest. These were previously sold in Waterstones and official Celtic FC stores, and are now available on Amazon.

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