Tommy Gemmell obituary: He had the face and the smile of Danny Kaye

Tommy Gemmell scores Celtic's goal against Feyenoord in the 1970 European Cup final at the San Siro.
Tommy Gemmell scores Celtic's goal against Feyenoord in the 1970 European Cup final at the San Siro.

Lisbon Lion Tommy Gemmell scored in the 2-1 victory over Inter Milan in 1967 when Celtic became the first British club to win the European Cup. He died last week, aged 73.

‘If I kept people happy, I must have been doing something right I guess,” Tommy Gemmell told his friend and biographer Alex Gordon a few weeks before his death.

It was a typically modest understatement from one of the true greats of Scottish, and British, football, and a man who helped revolutionise the game.

Only a dozen defenders have scored in a European Cup or Champions League final.

Tommy Gemmell did it twice.

When defenders do score it is generally from close range or the penalty spot: Gemmell’s were like cannonballs from outside the area. And the first of these screamers, on a bright evening in Lisbon 50 years ago, helped change sporting history, when Celtic beat Inter Milan and became the first team to break the Latin domination of European club football.

Gemmell was a recognisable character from the moment he started at Celtic, on the same day as his great friend Jimmy Johnstone. Tommy at left-back towered over Jimmy on the right wing. He had the face and the smile of Danny Kaye and the physique of a light-heavyweight boxer. But nobody imagined he would have such a big impact or so soon.

He made his debut for Celtic against Aberdeen in January 1963 at the age of 19. It was during one of the coldest winters on record, and Celtic’s approach to football at the time was similarly brutal, and very traditional.

There was no tactical instruction and training mostly involved running, with hardly any ball work. One reason Tommy became a first-choice player was simply that he could boot the ball hard and send it a long way.

In March 1965 Jock Stein became Celtic manager. His model was the Real Madrid side that he had seen destroy Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 at Hampden Park five years earlier. Every player on that side had to be able to contribute to the attack.

Inspired by that example, Stein introduced Celtic to a revolution in coaching and training that transformed the team. In particular, it transformed the role of the full backs.

Jim Craig was the right back in that side and Gemmell’s room-mate and minder on trips — Tommy was never the most punctual — and recalled “Tam telling me that one of the coaching staff that was there before Jock once said to him before a game that if he crossed the halfway line he would be out of the team the next week”.

With Stein’s encouragement both full-backs became auxiliary attackers, and Gemmell’s forays down the left and through the middle became a crucial tactical weapon. So did his ability to hit the ball hard and true.

Like some other powerful defenders he was deadly from the penalty spot — 34 scored, only three missed — but what marked him out was his shooting from distance.

There is some serious competition for the title of greatest left back of all-time. Paul Breitner, Paolo Maldini, Giacinto Facchetti, Andreas Brehme, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger… all of them had the ability to come forward but perhaps only Ruud Krol and Roberto Carlos could match the accuracy and power of Tommy Gemmell’s shots.

Even Stein eventually had to remind Craig and Gemmell that they had to come back as well as go forward, but the power they added to the Celtic attack overwhelmed most opponents.

So it was on that famous April evening in Lisbon in 1967.

Inter came into that match as strong favourites. They were a star-studded side, directed by a star manager, Helenio Herrera, known as Il Mago, The Wizard.

They had won the European Cup twice in the previous three years, eclipsing the great Real Madrid 3-1 with two goals from their talisman striker Sandro Mazzola. Herrera, the arch-pragmatist, had drilled them to perfection in the defensive system known as catenaccio after the Italian word for bolt.

Mazzola always insists that Inter mostly played attacking football, but that even had they wanted to it would have been impossible against Celtic. Inter had underestimated their opponents and paid the price. Stein also pulled the wool over their eyes.

“Herrera wanted us to follow Celtic’s training session and that proved to be a very serious error.

“The Scottish players turned up with dozens of fans who were well supplied with beer. Stein limited the session to warm-up exercises without the ball and then a practice match — against journalists! We looked at each other bemused and a bit amused and went back to the hotel convinced we could have the Scots for breakfast.

“Instead, we found ourselves penned back into our area, and however good our defenders were, Celtic hit the high notes with their attack. They were definitely not outsiders.”

Tommy Gemmell was still just 23. There would be other great games, other famous victories, both as a player and later as a manager with Dundee. But just after the hour came the defining moment of his life.

Inter had been a goal up — a Mazzola penalty — from the third minute. Somehow their defence had stayed impervious against everything Celtic could throw at them: 42 shots, 24 on target. Their goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti was playing out of his skin.

Then Craig got the ball on the edge of the Inter area, played the ball across the D to Gemmell, one full-back to the other, and in an instant a shot like a howitzer exploded into the roof of the net.

Celtic’s winner arrived six minutes from the end, scored by Steve Chalmers, but to everyone watching it was Gemmell’s strike that won the game.

“He was almost on his knees with fatigue before scoring but somehow his courage forced him to go on,” wrote Hugh McIlvanney.

Inter were finished from that moment. It was the end of their era of domination, the end of catenaccio and a triumph for what later became known as Total Football.

Celtic in 1967 were the pioneers, and Tommy Gemmell was their standard-bearer.

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