The Story of Tommy Gemmell: The Best Left-Back in the World

In his first article for The Supplement, new contributor Lee McKeown chronicles the life of the great Tommy Gemmell.

2017 marks a significant year in the history of Celtic Football Club with the 50th anniversary of Jock Stein’s legendary Lisbon Lions’ 2-1 triumph over Inter Milan in the 1967 European Cup final. Celtic have commemorated the anniversary with a series of special events and a new kit similar to that worn during the famous 1966-67 season when Celtic won every single competition they entered.

Tommy Gemmell 2

Furthermore, the anniversary has been made extra special with the performances of the current Celtic side. Under the guidance of Brendan Rodgers the team are on course for an unbeaten domestic season with only Aberdeen standing in the way of a domestic treble. Should Celtic achieve both it is no doubt that the 50th anniversary season of 2016-17 will go down in history as one of the clubs finest.

However, the year also marked the sad passing of Lisbon Lion Tommy Gemmell, the scorer of Celtic’s first goal in that unforgettable final.

Born in his grandmother’s house in Motherwell on 16th October 1943 and growing up in Wishaw, Tommy Gemmell originally played as a right winger for his school team before later moving to left back for his amateur team Meadow Thistle.

Gemmell was signed by Celtic in 1961 aged 18 from the junior club Coltness United before cementing himself as a first team regular two seasons later, quickly becoming a fan favourite. By the description of him in The Celtic Wiki it is easy to see why:

‘an aggressive attacking full back, he lacked nothing and took no prisoners. He exuded confidence and enabled the Lisbon Lions to begin their attacks as much from the back as from the front. He was known most famously for his powerful shot (which he called the ‘dunk’), making him the prime penalty kick taker’.

Gemmell would go onto score 64 goals in 418 appearances for Celtic, which included 31 scored penalties out of 34, a truly remarkable goal scoring record for a defender.

As with all his teammates that season, the most significant performance of Tommy Gemmell’s career was the 1967 European Cup final where he scored the equalizing goal to set the Celts on their way to victory.

Hugh McIlvanney of the Observer and Sunday Times describes Gemmell’s performance in the final as one of the most important factors leading to Celtic’s victory:

‘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 thunderous equaliser in the 63rd 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’.

Lisbon Lion team mate and Celtic great Bertie Auld described Gemmell as ‘the best left-back in the world at that time’ but Gemmell’s performance resonated outside of the UK as well; France Football Magazine ranked Tommy Gemmell as the 6th best player in Europe that season.

Tommy Gemmell would again play and score in the 1970 European Cup final loss against Feyenoord. He was the only defender to score in two finals until Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos achieved the same feat last season.

Gemmell 1970

In 1971, Gemmell left Celtic to sign for Nottingham Forest and then joined Dundee in 1973, where he notably captained the Dee to a 1-0 League Cup final victory over Celtic. A year after his retirement in 1976 Gemmell became manager of Dundee made the greatest ever Celt Jimmy Johnstone one of his star signings, although Johnstone’s spell at the Dark Blues would not prove to be successful.

After being sacked by Dundee in 1980, Gemmell had a spell as manager of Albion Rovers before he retired from football entirely, instead taking up a new position in sales of insurance.

Over his career, Gemmell acquired 18 international caps for Scotland. In a 2014 interview with the Daily Record, Gemmell stated that:

‘My appearances for Scotland over nine years in top-class football stretched to a paltry tally of just 18 caps and that was down to one individual – Jock Stein. At Celtic, his word was law. When an international was due and I was a cert to get a call-up, he would ask: “You don’t want to be bothered playing against that lot, do you?” It was, of course, a rhetorical question. If Scotland were playing one of the smaller nations, Jock preferred his players to rest before a vital club game the next Saturday. He would advise: “Say you’ve got a hamstring or something. I’ll get someone from the club to put in a call.” However, if it was a crucial qualifying game in the World Cup or Euros it was different’

Overall, in a glistering Celtic career, Gemmell won 5 Scottish League Championships, 3 Scottish Cups, 4 League Cups and a European Cup, in addition to holding the honour as the only Celtic player to score in two European Cup finals. After such stunning success, it is no wonder that upon leaving Celtic, Gemmell stated that ‘’I really missed being a Celtic player. That meant more than money.’’

Due to Gemmell’s success at Celtic he is rightly viewed as one of the clubs greatest ever players, being voted by supporters as part of Celtics greatest ever team in 2002. He would remain an integral part of the Celtic family following his retirement, becoming a regular guest and speaker at a wide variety of Celtic related functions and events.

Sadly, Tommy Gemmell passed away on 2nd March 2017, only two months before the 50th anniversary of the single greatest achievement in the history of Celtic Football Club. Nevertheless, Celtic icon Murdo MacLeod explained that Gemmell would be forever remembered for his success with the Lisbon Lions, stating that ‘’to be part of that was just fantastic. The Celtic Lisbon Lions – anywhere they went over the years everybody knew who they were. And for Tommy Gemmell to score a goal in that European final was just wonderful.”

On March 10th, Tommy Gemmell received a fitting send-off attended by thousands of Celtic supporters and numerous Celtic legends as his funeral cortege parted Celtic Park for the final time towards Daldowie Crematorium via London Road.

Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell stated that:

‘One of the privileges of my job is that you get to meet your heroes and Tommy was certainly one of them. I remember the goals in Lisbon and Milan. That Lisbon team inspired me – the underdog, 11 local lads, a unique achievement for Celtic and Scotland. I also remember watching the Scotland game in Germany on the television when Helmut Haller went past Tommy and nicked him and he turned round and blootered him. He was larger than life and he was a leader as well. He was one of the best full-backs in the world in his time, if not the best.’

While players and managers come and go, one thing that remains the same is the overwhelming admiration and support of the Celtic faithful. Indeed, as Celtic push towards a possible historic treble and unbeaten domestic season, in the words of Tommy Gemmell himself:

‘what will remain consistent, is the Celtic support and with those guys behind you anything is possible’


Lee McKeown is an enthusiastic Celtic supporter who hails from the land of Cumbernauld. He has held a season ticket in the corner of the Jock Stein Stand since the early days of Martin O’Neil and isn’t planning on moving it anytime soon! A history nerd who doesn’t actually know anything about football, or how to play it, so instead he has a keen interest in the history of Celtic. Lee also regularly trains and competes in the sport of Olympic freestyle wrestling; you can keep an eye on one of wrestling’s upcoming stars by following him on Twitter: @mckeown92

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