Celtic fans are currently in mourning over the news of the passing of Tommy Gemmell, the legendary Lisbon Lion.
Big Tam was more than just a footballer. He was a larger than life character who always played with a smile on his face and had a tremendous rapport with the fans. Flamboyant was an adjective often used to describe him amd the press often referred to him as ‘The Gay Cavalier’ in those innocent far off days when that term had a different meaning.
It’s also easy to forget what a terrific player he was. Between 1966 and 1970 Tommy was generally regarded as the best left back in Europe. An athletic, attacking defender who possessed a cannonball shot. Old footage shows Tommy’s shooting at it’s finest and as a youngster I watched in awe at the ferocity of his shots against Zurich and Benfica. Be in no doubt, had it not been for Tommy then Celtic would not have won the European Cup in Lisbon. Many years ago, Gerry McNee went on record to say that the Lisbon Lions had four players who could be genuinely described as world class. Tommy was one with Jimmy Johnstone, Bobby Murdoch and Bertie Auld being the others.
He was perhaps under rated as a defender. Yet he played against some of Europe’s finest wingers and there is no recollection of any of them bettering big Tam. It should be remembered that Rangers had two of the best wingers in Europe in Willie Henderson and Tommy McLean and there were others in the Scottish game such as Jimmy Smith, Peter Marinello and Tommy McLean who tried and failed against Gemmell. In Europe the likes of Kurt Hamrin, Dragan Dzajic and Peter Lorimer all found Tommy a tough nut to crack.
He was not without controversy and there were incidents in his career against Racing Club and West Germany which left a blot on the Gemmell copybook.
Oh you may have read or even heard somewhere that a Racing player was attacked
By big Tommy Gemmell, a gentle giant, the Glasgow Celtic full back
Well we asked big Tam, who’s as gentle as a lamb
If there’s anything he’d like to say
He said ‘I saw an action replay and I know it looks like me
But I swear it was Danny Kaye!’
Tommy was, of course, very similar in looks to Kaye and often played up on the similarity.
He was often kidded on for the size of his nose but in August 1969 the Gemmell nose made headlines. In a closely fought game against Rangers he scored a late winner when he dived low to head home and claimed afterwards that his nose had actually touched the ball into the net.
Tommy represented Celtic with distinction and holds a notable record of scoring in two European cup finals from open play. Quite a feat for a defender.
In 1992 Celtic were at a low ebb and Tommy appeared in the National Savings club at Cowglen for a charity fundraiser. He was joined by Bobby Murdoch, Bobby Lennox and Denis Connaghan. Stories were shared of the Parkhead old days with one particular one involving Jim Baxter, Cilla Black and Frankie Howard which will have to remain for another day.
A frustrated Rangers fan, hearing the Celtic nostalgia, shouted – ‘Let a Proddy ask a question.’ To which big Tommy replied -‘Mate, I’m the biggest Proddy in here!’
Tommy Gemmell was a real character and a world class player.
Rest in peace big man and thanks for the memories.