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Lisbon Lions star Gemmell was Celtic to his very core

By Julian Taylor

Over the years, Tommy Gemmell was well accustomed to being approached by grateful Celtic supporters.

And he particularly relished those moments when informed that a fan had 'loved that goal you scored in the European Cup final'.

Mischievously, the famed full-back would reply: "Which one?"

For Gemmell, who died yesterday aged 73, is one of only two British footballers to have scored in more than one European Cup final, Liverpool's Phil Neal being the other.

The celebrated Lisbon Lion did, of course, net for Celtic in their 1970 showpiece defeat to Feyenoord - but it was the expertly-placed, 18-yard shot past Inter Milan goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti in 1967 which anointed him into an unsurpassable chapter of the Glasgow giants' illustrious history.

The Bhoys became the first British side to win club football's biggest competition and Lanarkshire-born Gemmell became part of an elite band. He also has the accolade of scoring Celtic's first ever goal in the European Cup, against FC Zurich.

Along with great friend and great Celt Jimmy Johnstone, Gemmell was, in Glasgow parlance, a 'gallus' character: light-hearted and larger than life.

Although he could laugh about it in later years, the red mist which befell the Scot against West Germany's Helmut Haller in a crucial World Cup qualifier - when Haller received an undignified Gemmell boot up his backside - wasn't seen in quite the comical context at the time.

That goal against Inter, however, brought to worldwide attention his eye for a blistering shot, with 63 goals in 418 Celtic appearances.

Whether it was a rocket from the penalty spot into the roof of Rangers' net, a similar effort against St Etienne or other moments of joy constructed by the careering defender who, in a sense, defied definition, Gemmell was a green and white gladiator.

Like the legendary Jock Stein - that wily fox of both Scottish and continental altercations - Gemmell was years ahead of his time.

The perceived importance of an overlapping wing-back is all the accepted rage in modern football, yet the Celt, at just 23, helped power Stein's closely-knit upstarts to the greatest club prize of them all.

How many right-footed players can you think of who play at left-back, far less one of such renown? Little wonder Gemmell was subsequently voted one of the top six players in Europe by France Football magazine in 1967.

Gemmell (below with the European Cup) could play on both flanks, and Willie Henderson, that fine, sprightly winger across the city at Ibrox, regularly felt the bruises dished out by his uncompromising pal, before an evening of the warmest conviviality. Those were the days of decent boundaries within Old Firm rivalry.

Eighteen-times capped Gemmell, who won six titles, three Scottish Cups, four League Cups and that European Cup, eventually departed for Nottingham Forest, where, interestingly, a fledgling Martin O'Neill was learning his craft.

The pay packet at Forest was considerably more but in career terms it wasn't really about financial gain.

"I really missed being a Celtic player," Gemmell, a former apprentice electrician, once said. "That meant more than money."

In the early Seventies, he re-emerged in Scotland with Dundee and captained the Dark Blues to a League Cup final triumph over Celtic in 1973.

But it didn't take long for him to be forgiven by his former fans.

The annotation 'Rest in Peace, Big Shot' accompanied one of the many bouquets and assorted memorabilia at Celtic Park yesterday.

With Celtic approaching the 50th anniversary of that balmy night in Lisbon, Parkhead is a more solemn place for the absence of a true Lion, who, in Stein's opinion, was "the best left-back in the world".

Among the myriad of tributes, Denis Law, that great Scot, said of Gemmell: "He was a special big guy. Nothing flustered him on or off the park.

"In a lot of people's opinion, including mine, he was the finest left-back of his generation. He could have gone to any team in the world but he decided to remain loyal to Celtic when he was in his prime. I can pay him no higher compliment."

Belfast Telegraph


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