BILLY McNEILL and Jim Craig have had their say during CQN’s special tribute to the Celtic heroes who won the European in Lisbon 51 years and two days ago.
Today, it is the turn of buccaneering left-back TOMMY GEMMELL to tell his side of the story as it appeared in Alex Gordon’s book, ‘The Lisbon Lions: The 40th Anniversary’, published by Black and White in 2007.
Sadly, the iconic, swashbuckling goalscoring defender passed away on March 2 2017, but he left the Celtic fans with a million happy memories. This is just one of them…
THINK of Lisbon and it immediately conjures up wonderful, unforgettable images of a deliriously happy bunch of guys in green and white hoops cavorting around the Estadio Nacional looking very pleased with themselves.
It’s an exhibition of joyful pandemonium in the Portuguese capital on a gloriously sunny evening. Fans were racing across the moat onto that lush green pitch to celebrate with the players as Paradise came to Lisbon.
Let me, after all these years, tell you another story of that fabulous day; a side of the well-told tale that no-one caught on camera. We were snarling, growling, arguing and spitting blood at each other all the way to my equaliser in the 63rd minute.
Billy, as the good captain that he was, was sending out a steady stream of instructions and no-one was missed if he wasn’t content with what we were producing. It went all the way through the team. We fired each other up and it kept us right on our toes. If you were caught slacking, you would swiftly realise that your colleagues were never going to tolerate it. Quite rightly, too.
ON THE DEFENCE…Tommy Gemmell blocks a shot from a Falkirk forward with a little help from Jim Brogan with keeper Ronnie Simpson on the deck.
However, you look at those spectacular pictures on film and all you can see are players filled with unbridled happiness. If they could have slapped a tax on smiling we would have written off the National Debt in one fell swoop. There would have been big trouble, though, if it hadn’t quite worked out. Let’s get this straight; the Lions loved – and still do – each other. We were friends and buddies off the pitch. On it, was a different ball-game entirely.
Those Lions could snarl, believe me. We were all winners and couldn’t tolerate anything else. I think that’s what made us a bit special. We could rant and rave at each other throughout the game, but afterwards it was all forgotten. There were no grudges or backstabbing. That was not our style. Everything was said to your face and there were plenty of clear-the-air views back then. We all knew where we stood with each other. Big Jock actively encouraged that side of our game and it didn’t do us any harm, did it?
Travelling back in time, though, I must point out two players who have never received any credit for our victory in Lisbon. The names Armando Picchi and Angelo Domenghini may not be instantly recognisable to the Celtic supporters, but I can assure them these individuals have played a significant, if unwitting, part in the club’s history. Let me explain. As we prepared for Lisbon, Big Jock took me aside and told me: “You’ll get the freedom of the left wing. That Italian Domenghini won’t chase back – he doesn’t know how to tackle. I know what his game is all about. He’ll want to do his tricks and flicks at the other end of the pitch. The hard work will be left to the guys behind him. You’re going to enjoy this game.”
BEST OF MATES…Lisbon Lions Bertie Auld and Tommy Gemmell return after a training session at Barrowfield.
Sure enough, Big Jock, as usual, was absolutely spot on. Domeghini was a seasoned and gifted Italian international and, yes, he was exceptionally dangerous going forward, but he didn’t want to know about defending. When I received the ball I never had to look over my shoulder. He would simply be standing there, hands on hips, waiting for one of his colleagues to get the ball off me and feed it forward to him.
He was a bit precious, as they say in football. Porcelain, even. Around my part of the world we would have labelled him a lazy beggar! He may have possessed bundles of skill, but he would never have been in any Celtic team managed by Jock Stein, that’s for sure. So, certain in the knowledge that I would be unhindered throughout the 90 minutes, I launched into as many assaults on the Inter Milan defence as was possible before complete and utter exhaustion might have set in.
In domestic games it had become a bit of a habit for rival teams to mark me. I suppose I should take it as the extreme compliment, but it was a pain in the backside. It was difficult enough being a defender, so when you got the opportunity to get forward you wanted some freedom.
Once I got a bit of a reputation, though, I suddenly found these sorties being blocked. Wingers were being asked to defend first and attack only if they got the opportunity. That’s why I thoroughly enjoyed Lisbon. I could join the attack safe in the knowledge that Domenghini would not be tracking me and, basically, making a nuisance of himself.
Armando Picchi? Yes, he’s another for whom Celtic should have a special medal struck. I can’t recall how many times I have replayed my equaliser over and over in my head. I’ve seen it countless times and on each and every occasion I offer up a wee thanks to Picchi. Why? If you watch that goal again, keep your eye on the Inter Milan No.6 who charges out from defence as Jim Craig passes the ball inside for me.
Picchi comes at me at pace, but, for whatever reason, he hesitates and turns his back just as I am about to pull the trigger. As I said, I have watched film of that goal over and over again and I have to admit that if he had kept his momentum going then there would have been every chance he might have blocked my effort. If he had come out with his foot up or to the side he might have made contact with my shot. Maybe he was thinking of his manhood, marriage prospects or whatever, but, thankully, he had a swift change of mind and got out of the way.
LUCKY CHARMS…Tommy Gemmell – complete with hat! – outside Celtic Park.
In fact, I should actually thank him twice because there is every possibility that his aerial acrobatics also blinded their excellent goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti, who had looked unbeatable that day.
He was immense throughout and sometimes you start to believe it is just not going to be your day. We hit him with everything, but he thwarted us time and time again. I was beginning to hate the sight of him as he patrolled his area with so much confidence and composure. He looked pompous and even a wee bit arrogant. I recall him trying to ridicule Stevie Chalmers who had claimed a goal before the keeper stretched back to claw the ball off the line.
Stevie was convinced my effort had been good, but Sarti was having none of it and got to his feet and belted the ball back up the field. Then he made a rude gesture to Stevie that, basically, meant he thought he wasn’t right in the head. Insulting a Lion? I wasn’t having any of that.
It took us until the 63rd minute to get our equaliser and, yes, as legend has it, I did swear at the gaffer shortly afterwards. He was yelling from the touchline: “Keep it tight – we’ll get them in extra-time.”
I looked over and shouted back: “F**k off, boss, it’s 85 degress out here and we’re going to finish it here and now.”
Thankfully, that’s what happened and Big Jock never once mentioned our little bout of touchline verbals afterwards!
Again, when you exam that goal, you can see how spoiled for choice Jim Craig was as he came into the box with that loping gait of his. Stevie Chalmers, Bobby Lennox and the others seemed to be swarming all over the place. The Italians didn’t know who to pick up as everyone got into scoring positions. There was no way they were used to sure a situation in an Italian league game when they generally concentrated on in-depth defence.
As I recall, I was screaming at Cairney – as Craig was known – to put the ball in front of me. I was timing my run and I didn’t care one whit if Domenghini was with me or not on this occasion. Nobody or nothing was going to get in my way. At last, Cairney put the pass in – perfectly weighted, may I say – and, well, the rest is history. Wonderful, wonderful history. I’ll let you into a little secret – I still get a tingle when I witness that effort. Four decades down the line and I still can’t prevent myself from smiling when I see that shot whizzing high past Sarti and the ball strangling itself in the net.
OUT OF ACTION…Tommy Gemmell, in the fashion gear of the day, nurses
an ankle injury.
If you get the opportunity to see film of that goal again, just witness the amount of Celtic players who are in the Inter Milan penalty area as I scored. I saw it recently and could hardly believe my eyes – there were seven of us in there. SEVEN! Count them – me, Craig, Chalmers, Lennox, Wallace, Auld and Murdoch. You would be lucky these days to have seven players in the opposition’s half never mind their own penalty area in an away European tie. Okay, Simpson had to remain in goal, but where were Big Billy, John Clark and Wee Jinky when we needed them!
Wee Jimmy used to tell me how disappointed he was with his own performance in Lisbon. He really wanted to go out there and just take over. As we all know, he was a cocky little character and he knew this was his sort of platform. The European Cup Final was invented for Jinky; that was his sort of stage. But it is to his eternal credit that he sacrificed himself that day for the team.
He roamed here, there and everywhere taking the redoubtable Burgnich with him. It wouldn’t have been how he thought or dreamed how it would turn out, but he saw the team as being a lot more important than himself and he just got on with putting in a marvellous shift.
He dragged Burgnich all over the place and when he did that holes opened behind the Italian. That’s where the likes of Chalmers, Lennox and Wallace poured in and started rattling the cages of the back lot. Remember, this was a team that had built its reputation on resolute defence, but you could sense fear within their ranks as we stormed forward. Sarti would have broken hearts of other teams. We weren’t just another team, though, and we proved that in Lisbon.
A WORD IN YOUR EAR…author Alex Gordon with his good friend and Celtic hero Tommy Gemmell in recent times.
I will always recall Jinky in the dressing room at half-time when he turned to me and asked: “Tam, are we really losing? Are we not winning 10-1? Why are we not winning 10-1?” And, with a shake of the head, he sat down; baffled but unbowed. The answer, of course, was Sarti, who was having the game of his life.
I said I thought he was arrogant, but I had to take that back when I met him at a Lisbon Lions function in the Eighties. He was flown over as a special guest for the evening and he turned out to be a charming individual and he had the good grace to concede that we deserved to win.
He told me: “Your victory was a triumph for sport.” It takes a big man to make such an admission and we all greatly appreciated it.
But, by God, did he make us work hard to achieve it.
* Edited extract from ‘Celtic: The Lisbon Lions: 40th Anniversary’ by Alex Gordon. Published in 2007 by Black and White. Look out for more EXCLUSIVE extracts from the players who made the impossible dream come true over the next few days. Only in your champion CQN!