As I stopped by the Statue of Brother Walfrid on a chilly Friday evening to look at the tributes left in memory of Tommy Gemmell, a grizzled old chap beside me mumbled, ‘Another one of the old brigade away eh?’ He introduced himself as John and told me he was the Janitor at one of Glasgow’s more famous colleges. We got talking about Tommy Gemmell and our memories of him. I told him my childhood memories of the galloping full back with the ferocious shot who carried real threat into the opposition’s half in every game he played. He in turn told me the following story which he delivered in a gravelly Glaswegian voice as warm as it was genuine.
John told me that he attended London Road Primary School more than 50 years ago. The school as you know was demolished as the Celtic Way was created a couple of years back. He lived in the tenements which once stood on the London Road opposite Celtic Park. As a lad he and his pals often saw Celtic players returning from training. In those days Celtic changed in the stadium and walked half a mile to Barrowfield training pitch which stood behind the current Celtic Social club building. It seems astonishing to modern ears that some of the best players in Europe got to training in such a manner but that was the way it was then. One day John and his buddies decided to hurl abuse through the school railings at the Celtic players like Gemmell, Johnstone and Chalmers who were walking back to Celtic Park muddy but laughing and joking. John recalled the sectarian nature of the abuse he joined in that day long ago as a boy and wasn’t proud of it.
Later that day as he and his fellow pupils sat in class, the door opened and the head teacher walked in closely followed by the unmistakable figure of Jock Stein and Celtic full back Tommy Gemmell. Jock addressed the class and told them about the abuse the players had heard that morning. He told them that some of the Celtic players had reported it to him and he had phoned the school to arrange the visit. John still recalls clearly what Stein said to the class all those years ago. ‘To shout things like ‘Fenian B’ or ‘Pape’ at the players is just plain stupid. Celtic are a mixed side and players like Gemmell, Simpson, Wallace and Auld were not Catholics. Indeed I myself am not a Catholic.’ John recalls Gemmell too telling them how silly their behaviour had been and admits to being a little ashamed when confronted in the manner he and his pals had been by Jock Stein.
Of course they were all just silly school kids having a lark but if such things are checked early enough it can help youngsters avoid developing more deep rooted prejudices later in life. John told me that he came from a Rangers supporting family but drifted towards Celtic as he grew and he put much of it down to that chat from Stein and Gemmell. As a teenager he became a committed Celt and has now backed the team for over 45 years. He was genuinely sad at the loss of a man like Tommy Gemmell. ‘Those guys played it like it should be played. I loved Celtic because of the football they played, it was a joy to watch.’ John said to me before saying his farewells and trudging down the Celtic way with just the hint of a glance at the spot where his old school had stood.
A year after that classroom intervention by Jock Stein and Tommy Gemmell Celtic were champions of Europe; helped in no small way by Gemmell’s attacking prowess and howitzer like shot. It was recognised in the Guardian Newspaper the day after Celtic defeated Inter that Tommy Gemmell had played a vital role…
"Stein had correctly said the day before the final; Inter will play it defensively. That's their way and it's their business. But we feel we have a duty to play the game our way, and our way is to attack. Win or lose, we want to make the game worth remembering. Just to be involved in an occasion like this is a tremendous honour and we think it puts an obligation on us. We can be as hard and professional as anybody, but I mean it when I say that we don't just want to win this cup. We want to win it playing good football, to make neutrals glad we've done it, glad to remember how we did it."
The effects of such thinking, and of Stein's genius for giving it practical expression, were there for all the football world to see on Thursday. Of course, he has wonderful players, a team without a serious weakness and with tremendous strengths in vital positions. But when one had eulogised the exhilarating speed and the bewildering variety of skills that destroyed Inter – the unshakable assurance of Clark, the murderously swift overlapping of the full-backs, the creative energy of Auld in midfield, the endlessly astonishing virtuosity of Johnstone, the intelligent and ceaseless running of Chalmers – even with all this, ultimately the element that impressed most profoundly was the massive heart of this Celtic side.
Nothing symbolised it more vividly than the incredible display of Gemmell. He was almost on his knees with fatigue before scoring that minute but somehow his courage forced him to go on dredging up the strength to continue with the exhausting runs along the left wing that did more than any other single factor to demoralise Inter. Gemmell has the same aggressive pride, the same contempt for any thought of defeat, that emanates from Auld.
Before the game Auld cut short a discussion about the possible ill-effects of the heat and the firm ground with a blunt declaration that they would lick the Italians in any conditions.’ When he had been rescued from the delirious crowd and was walking back to the dressing rooms after Celtic had overcome all the bad breaks to vindicate his confidence Auld – naked to the waist except for an Inter shirt knotted round his neck like a scarf – suddenly stopped in his tracks and shouted to Ronnie Simpson, who was walking ahead: "Hey, Ronnie Simpson, what are we? What are we, son?" He stood there sweating, showing his white teeth between parched lips flecked with saliva. Then he answered his own question with a belligerent roar. "We're the greatest. That's what we are. The greatest." Simpson came running back and they embraced for a full minute.’’
It is tempting to say that the splendid football of the Lisbon Lions was eloquently matched by some of the splendid reporting of the game. Through the mists of time or via the wonderful medium of modern technology we can see and hear again the sights and sounds of that day long ago when Celtic proved they were the finest side in Europe. Tommy Gemmell, the man French Magazine, L’Equipe called the ‘Executioner of Inter, the man who smashed their defensive screen’ looms large in that game. His ceaseless hounding of the Inter defence, his strong, probing runs and of course his thunderous shot, all helped change Celtic’s history forever.
In the old footage from Lisbon you can hear the clipped BBC English of Commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme. As Celtic pounded away at the Inter defence some may have worried that the equalising goal might never come. Then in that glorious moment Wolstenholme spoke the words all Celtic fans longed to hear….
‘Now Clark to Murdoch…. In comes Craig… Gemmell… He’s scored! A great goal! He’s done it!’
They knew then they would win and God bless every one of them.
We won’t forget you Tommy or your team mates from those golden days. What times we had; what memories you helped create. What pride we have in your achievements.
Rest in peace and thank you.