CQN today continues our EXCLUSIVE extracts from the late, great Celtic legend Tommy Gemmell, ‘All The Best’, co-authored by Alex Gordon.
Today, the Hoops icon reveals all about his time as manager of Dundee when he was reunited with his friend Jimmy Johnstone.
Alas, the signing was destined to collapse. Here is the real story, told in Tommy’s own words.
JIMMY JOHNSTONE awakened me from a deep sleep by rattling on the door of my hotel at around 1.30 in the morning. There was no point in taking him to task at that particular moment because reason had been washed away in a sea of alcohol.
He swayed from side to side, looked at me, focused and mumbled, ‘Hi, boss.’ With that, he trundled off to his room. I was more frustrated than angry. The following morning I grabbed Jinky. Normally, I drove him to our training ground at Strathmartin Hospital where they had excellent facilities, including a lush playing surface. There were also a big hill. Guess where Jinky was heading that morning?
The Wee Man was still half-drunk and reeking of booze when I virtually threw him into my car. I knew Jinky could take a cargo, so I wondered what on earth had he been drinking to leave him in this condition. It would have to have been substantial, that’s for sure. I’ve got a fair idea of what I’m talking about because I was known to quaff an ale or two with him and he possessed an exceptional tolerance level to booze.
My heart sank. This just wasn’t a convivial pint or two after training. This was a full-blown bevvy session. I got him to the training ground and said to Willie Wallace, ‘Work that wee bastard to a standstill today. Put him through the wringer. I’m not letting him away with murder.’ Wispy didn’t hold back. After the players had gone through their normal routines, Jinky was called back for some extras.
Wispy handed him a medicine ball and told him to carry it up to the top of the hill and back again five times. Jinky took the ball and completed the chore before handing it back to his former team-mate. Wispy gave it back to him. ‘Let’s have another five, Jinky,’ he ordered. The Wee Man groaned, but he knew what it was all about. I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. Somewhere in between those runs Jinky was violently sick. He was coughing and choking, but stuck to the task.
After his session on the hill, he thought that it was over for the day. No chance. Wispy gave him the medicine ball again. ‘We’re going through another routine, I’m afraid, Wee Man. We need to get you fit.’
Jinky was told to run from the eighteen-yard line to the goal-line and back five times. He glowered at the wretched weight that was the medicine ball and did as he was told. He looked as though he was about to expire at the end of that routine. ‘Now do it five times from the halfway-line to the goal-line and back,’smiled Wispy, who, if he hadn’t made it in football, would have fitted in quite nicely to a role with the Gestapo.
LISBON LION…Jimmy Johnstone puts the pressure on the Inter Milan defence during his halcyon days.
Jinky must have been aching all over, but he said nothing. Off he went to complete that particular task. When he returned he looked at Wispy and asked, ‘You want me to run the full length of the pitch now with this effin’ thing, don’t you?’ ‘Got it in one, Jinky,’ replied my No.2. ‘Off you go.’
His lungs must have been burning and his legs must have been in terrible distress. He did as he was told, though. He must have been on the point of collapse when I told him to go and get a shower. Sounds drastic, I know, but I was absolutely desperate for the Wee Man not to let anyone down, especially himself.
He didn’t utter a word in the car on our way back to Dens Park. I didn’t even get a ‘See you later, boss’ as he left. I wasn’t bit surprised to later learn that he bodyswerved the local hostelries that afternoon. He headed straight back to the hotel, didn’t even have a quick one at the bar with the regulars, went to his room and crawled under the bed sheets. Lesson learned? Remember, it’s Jimmy Johnstone we’re talking about.
I thought it would be a good idea to pair Jinky with Gordon Strachan in training. Wee Gordy was another who appeared to be in awe of Jinky and I thought his natural enthusiasm would spark my pal. It appeared to be doing the trick for a few days, too, until Gordy injured a toe which became infected. A few days’ rest was required.
Jinky picked up a strain of some kind around the same time. Boredom kicked in big-style, unfortunately, with the Wee Man. He couldn’t even get to training in the morning and there were many other distractions. Jinky had taken a liking to his new team-mate and it was reciprocated by a fresh-faced teenager.
I never had any doubts about Gordon’s dedication and application. I also knew he was a youngster who kept his word. I was told Manchester United had offered him a trial before he actually signed any contract at Dundee. However, because he wouldn’t go back on a promise, he rejected United and put pen to paper on schoolboy forms at Dundee, left school at fifteen and became an apprentice on the ground staff in 1972. Ironically, he was signed by John Prentice, the manager who gave me my international debut in 1966 against England at Hampden. That man could spot a player.
I also knew Hibs had missed out on him after a row between his father and Easter Road boss Eddie Turnbull over expenses that had already been agreed. Turnbull – known to everyone in football as Ned – thought chairman Tom Hart had been too generous and wanted to cut them. Gordon’s dad wasn’t having any of that and any possible move to his boyhood favourites ended there and then. Not one of Ned’s best bits of business, that’s for sure.
It must have been really hard work for Gordon as a young kid. He hailed from Muirhouse, a tough council housing scheme in Edinburgh, and was on the bus at 6.15 in the morning to take him to the city’s Waverley Station and then onto Dundee. Rain, hail or shine, Gordon was on that train every day. He was never lonely on that journey because I think about half the Dundee squad came from the capital. Gordon would have travelling companions in George Stewart, Bobby Robinson, Bobby Ford, Ian Anderson, Alex Caldwell and George Mackie among others.
Maybe it would have been better if we had held our training sessions in Edinburgh! Whereas his mates could travel back after the morning training session, Gordon, as the only apprentice in the group, had to remain behind to do all sorts of other menial duties around the ground. He couldn’t have got home much before 7.30 in the evening. No-one ever heard him grumble.
Actually, I first saw him when I joined the club from Nottingham Forest in the summer of 1973. I got to the ground a couple of weeks ahead of the pre-season schedule and I spotted some kids having a five-a-sides game behind one of the goals. ‘Can I join in?’ I asked. ‘Are you any good?’ responded Strachan with a cheeky grin. ‘I’ll do my best,’ I said. I was hugely impressed by him right away.
He was just a wee boy, really, but he had so much ability. He was always looking for the ball, always wanting to be in the thick of the action. He was non-stop and that endeavour never left him at any stage in his career. From a raw kid to a veteran at Coventry City via Aberdeen, Manchester United and Leeds United, playing into his forties, he never lacked enthusiasm. Ron Atkinson, the manager who took him from Pittodrie to Old Trafford in 1984, once said, ‘There’s no-one fitter at his age – except, maybe, Raquel Welch.’ Now that’s a compliment.
So, I had nothing to worry about Gordon as far as his professionalism was concerned. And when I paired him with Jinky I genuinely believed they would feed off each other. I also told Gordon to push the Wee Man and I thought Jinky would respond. Well, it looked sound enough in theory. Things can often go slightly awry in practice, as we all know.
Anyway, one day Jinky, with nothing to do, invited the injured and sidelined Gordon out for lunch at the Queen’s Hotel in the city. Innocent enough and there was no way my young player would knock back such an invite from a true football legend. Jinky was always good company and had a steady line of anecdotes. Wee Gordy was hooked.
The drink was flowing by the time lunch was over and done with. Now, Gordy was no drinker. He was a lightweight and I was aware of that, but it’s easy sometimes to lose inhibitions once radical thought is dismissed as the alcohol goes to work.
Gordy would have been trying to keep pace with Jinky without even realising how much he was consuming. He always admitted he wasn’t in the same league as Jinky as a footballer. He discovered that day he wasn’t in the same league as Jinky as a drinker, either. Not too many were, in fact.
A barman at the Queen’s later told me my two players had consumed four bottles of wine with their meal. The bright thing after that would have been to go home and have a bit of a kip. Indeed, I later found out that they went to Strachan’s home, had a few more drinks and then fished out a ball and had an impromptu kickabout with some local kids in the street. That sight must have bewildered passers-by.
After that, it was off to the pub. And then another pub. They must have been fairly puggled by this stage because someone thought it would be a great idea to get a taxi to Errol and have a few more in the Central Hotel. Not a particularly good idea considering the hotel was only fifty yards across the road from the Commercial Hotel, where the proprietor, of course, was a certain Mr.T. Gemmell Esq.
I noted Jinky hadn’t returned, but wasn’t overly concerned. He could have been fishing by the Tay for all I knew. That notion was knocked on the head when one of my regulars came in. ‘Hey, Tommy, did you know two of your players are over at the Central trying to drink the place dry?’ he asked. Not for the first time my heart sank. ‘Jinky and who else?’ I responded. ‘Wee Gordon Strachan’s with him. He’s totally blootered. Wee Jinky’s no’ much better.’
I was fuming. How stupid could they be? It was bad enough going on a pub crawl, but to do it just across the road from their manager was unbelievable. I marched across the road, just in time to see a sloshed Strachan staggering through the door. He weaved unsteadily towards me without lifting his head.
‘Where the hell are you going?’ I bellowed.
‘Where the hell am I going? I don’t even know where the hell I am,’ slurred Strachan.
‘Do you know who you’re talking to?’
‘I don’t even know who I am.’
I wasn’t sure if he was trying to be funny. Then he focused, blinked one eye, and managed to make out my image and burst into tears.
‘Sorry, boss,’ he uttered. ‘Sorry, sorry, boss. I don’t suppose you could get me a taxi?’
‘Get over the road,’ I ordered. ‘I’ll deal with you in a moment.’ I then went into the bar to give Jinky a piece of my mind. The wee bugger had scarpered. The sixth sense that came to his aid so often on the football pitch worked just as well when he was blotto off it.
‘You’ve just missed him, Tommy,’ the barman informed me. ‘He left a couple of minutes ago.’ I caught up with Strachan and all the time he was crying, ‘Sorry, boss, really, really sorry. Can you get me a taxi?’
There was little point in giving Strachan a dressing down. He was obviously out the game. I made sure he got home in one piece – he would now be his wife Lesley’s problem – and I awaited with the greatest of interest when Jinky might grace my establishment with his presence. Eventually, there was a racket at the front door. It was about two o’clock in the morning. I opened the door and there was the Wee Man.
Putting it mildly, he was the worse for wear. Before I could say a word, he looked up, bleary-eyed and muttered, ‘Ach, we were only having a wee bit fun.’ I got a hold of him and huckled him to his room and chucked him into his bed. As I closed the door behind me I heard a muffled, ‘Ach, it was only a couple of effin’ drinks.’
You can’t keep things like that quiet for long in a hamlet such as Dundee. Ian Gellatly, the chairman, would have heard about it minutes afterwards. The following day, he asked me how we were going to deal with it. ‘Leave it to me,’ I said. To be honest, I wasn’t interested in fining the pair or suspending them.
Once they had properly sobered up, I had a good old-fashioned heart-to-heart with both. Gordon Strachan swore it would never happen again. As far as I am aware, that remained the case throughout his career. At least, Jinky did him a huge favour that day. My old team-mate was contrite, too. ‘It just got a wee bit out of hand,’ he said. ‘I didn’t see it coming. Sorry, Big Man.’
I am not one for holding grudges, so that was the end of it as far as I was concerned. The newspapers, of course, had been tipped off by some helpful local worthies and my phone was red hot for hours. I managed to fend off most of their enquiries and, whether they believed me or not, the matter never hit the headlines. Those were the days where you knew most of the reporters and you trusted them.
I have to be completely honest here and say I was heartbroken that things did not work out for Jimmy Johnstone at Dundee. It could have turned out to be a grande finale to a wonderful career. That would have been fitting after all Jinky had contributed to the game.
He deserved sustained applause at the final curtain on what really wasn’t a job of work but his vocation. Alas, it wasn’t to be. He started only two games for us and made a substitute appearance in another. We knew it was all over after about three months. I had the secretary draw up a waiver stating that Jinky’s contract with Dundee Football Club was being terminated with immediate effect. I promised to pay him the second part of his signing-on fee.
I don’t think he was even thinking about the money when he signed the form. We had been through so much together, going way back to the days when I trained to be an electrician at Burnbank Technical College and Jinky took a course in welding. That was in 1960. This was 1977. There had been a lifetime in between.
He signed the waiver, handed it back, looked at me, smiled and said, ‘Thanks, anyway, Big Man.’
My heart plummeted like a stone. We had a wee cuddle and he was on his way. His taxi arrived at the front door of Dens Park and, with that trademark cheeky grin, he glanced back at me, smiled again and waved. I felt my eyes welling up. There was a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. If an individual can’t get emotional at a time like that then they should check and make sure they still have a pulse. As the vehicle took off, I couldn’t help but wonder about the Wee Man’s destination.
Would he get a chance at another league club? He had just turned thirty-three and I knew a focused Jimmy Johnstone could still play on for another couple of years. After turning out in nine games for Shelbourne in Ireland, he had a short spell in the Highlands with Elgin City and then spent six months with Junior side Blantyre Celtic. It was all over in 1979, two years after I had taken him to Dundee. Two dreadfully wasted years in the career of a footballing genius.
Gordon Strachan must have seen the error of his ways that fateful day in Dundee. He was still playing first class football with Coventry City at the age of forty.
TOMORROW: Tommy Gemmell reveals more football secrets.