Tommy Gemmell, a genuine Lisbon Lion

“I really missed being a Celtic player. That meant more than money.” This quote summarizes what means to be a special one footbal player. And Celtic legend Tommy Gemmell truly is. This member of the Lisbon Lions was immortalised by scoring the equalising goal in the ultimate final as Celtic lifted the European Cup in 1967.

Tommy Gemmell was born on 16 October 1943 in his Granny’s house in Cumbrae Drive, Motherwell – the family subsequently moved to nearby Craigneuk in Wishaw when Tommy was five years old. He played on the right wing for his school team and only moved to left back when his amateur team Meadow Thistle were short of a full back. He joined Celtic from junior club Coltness United in 1961, although he had already been training with the Special One Football Club two evenings per week. He signed provisional forms on the same night as Jimmy Johnstone.

In his youth he actually was a big Motherwell fan, growing up in tough conditions. The environment is likely what developed the hard edged spirit in his game. An aggressive attacking full back he lacked nothing and took no prisoners. He exuded confidence and enabled the Lisbon Lions to begin their attacks as much from the back as from the front. He was known most famously for his powerful shot (which he called the ‘dunk’), making him the prime penalty kick taker. The big factor that changed his life was the arrival of Jock Stein at Celtic, and things were to change forever. Prior to this, he was going nowhere in particular.

Jock Stein pushed Tommy Gemmell, and quickly he became known not only for his stalwart defending but also for his charges forward and his thunderbolt strikes at goal. Even before the European Cup final, Gemmell was known for his long-range shots at goal. On September 28th 1966, he became the first Celtic player to score in the European Cup when he netted against FC Zurich at Parkhead. A remarkable fact is that he was an ever-present that glorious season, with only John Clark in a similar position.

He will forever be immortalised for one special moment in Lisbon for scoring the goal that helped Celtic to win the European Cup in 1967. The strange thing is that he was not a prolific goal scorer, many of his goals actually came from the penalty spot (64 goals in 418 appearances for Celtic, 31 of those from the penalty spot). A fearless no nonsense player, he was the most adept to take the penalties, and probably his vanity meant he had the over-confidence to fearlessly take them. It worked, he only missed three out of 34.

He also scored in the 1970 European Cup final, making him one of an elite set of footballers to score in two European Cup finals. However, some have retorted that his performance was below what should have been expected in this final and some have admonished him as a reason for losing that game, but it’s all history now and the critics are being overly harsh.

Importantly, it wasn’t just in Scotland where his ability was recognised. In their Xmas poll of 1967, France Football magazine ranked Tommy as the sixth best player in Europe. In 1970, a poll of sports journalists in Hungary & Brazil (both renowned attacking sides at the time) voted him as the best right-back in the world. Tommy will have definitely loved that.

He made his debut for Scotland in April 1966, losing 4-3 to England at Hampden. He won 18 international caps (scoring once) but perhaps gained more notoriety for his sending off (the first of his career) in October 1969 against West Germany in a crucial qualifying match which the Scots lost 3-2, where he chased an opposing player to give him a boot up the backside. The incident was later famously sent up and recreated in a football sketch in the 1990’s “Fantasy Football League” TV program on BBC in which Gemmell kicked comedian Frank Skinner so hard that the man injured himself in the fall.

He had his differences with manager Jock Stein, but when Jock called him the greatest left-back in the world he meant it. In retrospect, Tommy Gemmill’s biggest asset was his ability to stand up to anyone anywhere. He was probably the only one player at Celtic willing to front up to Stein over any quibbles over matters like pay. This wasn’t necessarily greed and it must be noted just how little players back then were paid in comparison to those playing now. However, money was a major element to Tommy, reflected heavily in his biography sometimes too much. Nevertheless, he was still well loved by the players and the manager, and money concerns hardly single him out alone.

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