TOMMY GEMMELL was one of the most colourful and charismatic characters in Celtic history.
The Lisbon Lion, who scored in two European Cup Finals courtesy of his ferocious shooting prowess, played in a few world and Europe select games with several of them going under the radar because they were not officially recognised by FIFA or UEFA.
In ANOTHER CQN EXCLUSIVE series, author Alex Gordon, a long-time friend of the Hoops icon, opens his book files to reveal some tales of the flamboyant full-back.
Alex says: “One of these sort of tribute matches that Tommy remembered well was the Rest of Europe v Benfica game for the legendary Mario Coluna in the Stadium of Light in December 1970. The Portuguese outfit won 3-2.
“When I was interviewing Tommy for his autobiography, ‘All The Best‘ which was published by CQN in 2014, he talked about the antics of the unpredictable George Best.
“I reminded my big pal that the Irishman didn’t figure in any team photos or lists for that particular encounter.
“He explained why in his book. Here is an extract.
LEGENDS TOGETHER…Dutch superstar Johan Cruyff and Celtic’s Lisbon Lion Tommy Gemmell shake on it.
JOHAN CRUYFF was more than just a little perplexed as the minutes ticked down to the kick-off.
He grabbed me by the arm and, with a bewildered expression, asked: “Is he always like that? Is he okay?”
The subject of his quizzical attention was none other than George Best.
We were in the dressing room preparing for a Rest of Europe exhibition game against Benfica in Lisbon in honour of their legendary captain Mario Coluna and my old mate Bestie had over-indulged in the pre-match hospitality.
He wasn’t quite legless, but he certainly wouldn’t have passed any breathalyser test. The Dutch legend might have thought he had seen everything in his glorious career, but he had never shared a dressing room with the Irish superstar.
Let’s be kind and say Bestie was a bit merry; tipsy, even.
I have to admit, though, I had seen George in that condition before and it didn’t prevent him from running amok and giving yours truly a torrid time in another friendly confrontation when Celtic were facing Manchester United in Toronto.
THE CREAM OF EUROPE…Tommy Gemmell (back row, third left) and John Cruyff (front row, right) line up before the Testimonial Match for Benfica’s legendary captain Mario Coluna (fourth left) in Lisbon in December 1970.
Both clubs were staying in the same hotel, the Royal York, and, on the afternoon of the game, Billy McNeill, Bertie Auld, Willie Wallace and myself arranged to have a snifter with our old Celtic team-mate Paddy Crerand at a wee Irish pub, O’Malley’s, just round the corner from the hotel.
Paddy turned up with Bestie in tow and all our good intentions of just having a quick half-pint went hurtling right out of the window.
We knocked back our half-pint and then someone ordered another. Bestie, of course, was known to down a beer or several, but, on this occasion, he preferred the grape to the grain. And he so capably proved that particular afternoon he was also fairly adept at downing copious amounts of wine.
“Forget the lager,” he said, “let’s get a few bottles of Mateus Rose.”
The wine disappeared in the blink of an eye and the chink of a glass. Several other bottles were placed on the table. It didn’t take long for them to be demolished, either.
HE WENT THATAWAY…George Best takes on Tommy Gemmell in an international encounter.
Please don’t get the impression that this was normal practice for Celtic – or Manchester United players, for that matter – before a game, but this was a glorified kickabout with nothing at stake. I think it was due to commence at eight o’clock and, four hours before the match, we were still hammering the vino in O’Malley’s.
Now, if this had been an important European tie we would all have been in bed at four o’clock. This was different. We were having a bit of harmless fun and we knew we could still entertain the 35,000 fans on the night.
Bestie, though, really should have carried a Government Health Warning. He was dangerous to be around. Good fun, but dangerous. Anyway, someone must have had an attack of brains because we decided to get back to the hotel and have a wee rest before going to the ground.
I said to Bestie: “Remember, George, take it easy. I don’t want to be chasing you all night. Okay?”
He smiled: “Okay, Tommy, no problem.”
TRIO OF MAVERICKS…George Best with Celtic legend Jimmy Johnstone and Rangers’ Willie Henderson.
No problem? He was inspired that evening. He was twisting this way and that, racing away from everyone in a green and white shirt right from the off and no-one could get the ball off him. I caught up with him.
“Hey, you wee bastard, I thought you were going to take it easy.” He answered: “Sorry, Big Man, I just feel so effin’ good.”
Believe me, I was happy and relieved to hear that full-time whistle and get off that pitch. Bestie was unstoppable. After that mauling, I often wondered about the qualities of Mateus Rose.
Several glasses certainly didn’t do my Irish friend any harm, but if there are any budding footballers out there reading this I must point out that Bestie was a one-off.
He could get away with things us mere mortals wouldn’t have a chance of achieving.
* TOMORROW: Don’t miss the further adventures of a Celtic legend.