The most striking element of the Lisbon Lions was their common cause, no one man above another, no one left to fight their own battles. Even now, when you see them together, this camaraderie is in evidence, but on their defining day, one stood out.
On 26th May 1967, the day after Celtic’s European Cup win against Inter Milan, the Italian press raved about Tommy Gemmell. They had never seen a player like him. This was the era before Man of the Match awards, but the Italians were clear, Tommy was the stand-out performer on the day.
Defenders of his physical stature were invariably centre halves, not full backs. Full backs were defenders, not auxiliary wingers, but this was Tommy. You will read about the ascent of overlapping full back affecting the game in subsequent years, they were following Tommy Gemmell.
He was fast, could climb, had levels of stamina to allow him to get up and down the wing all game, and he was hard. Rock hard. Originally a right back, he blossomed when moved to the left back position. This allowed him to cut inside onto his strongest foot, and shoot. And he could shoot like no one else.
He scored the 60th minute equaliser in Lisbon from the inside left position, which he had taken up against team orders. Only one full back was supposed to be up field at a time, so when right back Jim Craig looked up to play a pass, the only player he should not have been able to see was Tommy Gemmell.
What Tommy did that day was overload Inter all down their right hand side. He could do this but still had the speed and engine to get back into position. This gifted Celtic a spare man in attack which Inter was unable to combat throughout the game.
And as if that wasn’t enough, he scored in his next European Cup final, against Feyenoord in 1970. A full back, scoring in two European Cup finals. In his era, he was peerless, at home or in Europe. The Continent’s very best knew this. Later decades would see the tall, fast, full back, but how many were as physically intimidating? How many possessed a fearsome ability to score from outside the box?
I got to know the great man personally in recent years. I spent time with him, he got to know my kids and they got to know him. People will tell you that the Lisbon Lions are the most ordinary people you will ever meet when you get them one to one. It’s true. Tommy, like his former team-mates, would remember details about the boys and ask about them with sincere interest.
The news of his passing today comes years after we were first prepared for this moment. He was hospitalised after a fall and given little hope of returning to his sheltered accommodation in Dunblane, but his fortitude saw him through and he was back on his feet before anyone expected.
His Dunblane flat was modest, but there was a wall of photographs, memories of when Tommy was a sporting great on the world stage. The wall prompted stories, the away tie against Dukla, what a moment they celebrated, 11 Scots on a field in the Czech capital, the first British team to qualify for a European Cup final.
Eusebio was his physical match, so Tommy enjoyed their numerous encounters. Cruyff, not so much. The Ajax player was so fast, so strong, “You didn’t know whether to get close to him, leaving space for him to exploit, or stand back and let him collect the ball before turning on you”.
I listened to as many stories as Tommy would tell and couldn’t believe that someone from the Lanarkshire streets of Craigneuk, a few miles from where I lived, had gone toe-to-toe with the game’s timeless heroes.
When he returned to his Dunblane flat from hospital a few years ago, we heard he was listening to Celtic games on the radio as he didn’t have subscription TV. CQN’ers answered the call and WinningCaptains sorted this out for him. He was incredibly touched by this gesture and remained a great friend to the blog.
His later years in particular were lit by a close friendship to CQN correspondent Alex Gordon, who with his wife, Gerda, visited Tommy more than anyone. They were there for the great man when he needed them.
His health slowly deteriorated over the last month. I knew this day was coming but feel upset nonetheless. There is no measuring what the man we lost today contributed to what we are able to enjoy in the current Celtic team. Without Tommy and his pals, none of what we have would be here.
Rest in peace, Tommy.