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Dublin: 12°C Thursday 22 April 2021

The greats will be remembered long after they're gone and long after we're gone too

Tommy Martin on the the passing of Tommy Gemmell and the nature of sporting immortality.

Bertie Auld of Celtic shoots during the European Cup final against Inter Milan.
Bertie Auld of Celtic shoots during the European Cup final against Inter Milan.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

Updated at 12.52

I HAD ONLY just been reading about Tommy Gemmell when his death at the age of 73 was announced on Thursday morning.

It was the earlier news that Billy McNeill, captain of Celtic’s 1967 European Cup-winning team, was suffering from dementia that had prompted me to reach for my copy of ‘McIlvanney on Football’.

The first piece in the great sportswriter’s anthology, called ‘Immortality for the Big Man’, was his report from Lisbon published in The Observer on 28 May, 1967.

As it turns out, there is no mention of McNeill in the piece, for two possible reasons: firstly, that Celtic’s complete dominance after conceding a 7th minute penalty to Inter Milan meant the centre-half had little to do.

Secondly, Hugh McIlvanney, at Jock Stein’s side in the Celtic dressing room in the aftermath of the game, may not have actually seen McNeill become the first British player to lift the European Cup.

EUROPEAN CUP CELTIC LON Billy McNeill lifts the European Cup. Source: AP/Press Association Images

The Celtic squad had been spirited away amid scenes of post-match bedlam at the Estádio Nacional, with only McNeill smuggled through the heaving throng to be presented with the trophy.

The iconic image of the cup being raised would later preserve McNeill’s part in that day for posterity, but no account of the triumph in Lisbon could be written without mention of Tommy Gemmell. His equalising goal, a trademark power strike from just outside the box, broke Inter’s resistance, and he was also involved in the build up to Stevie Chalmers’ 84th minute winner.

Those bare facts do not tell the whole story.

Over to Hugh:

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.”

This would be one of Gemmell’s great legacies to the game, aside from being a member of the select club to score in two European Cup finals.  Like his opposite number in Lisbon, Giacinto Facchetti of Inter, he was one of a pioneering generation of attacking full-backs, who set the template for the marauding defenders so familiar in modern football.

But who needs McIlvanney when one of the foremost experts on the Lisbon Lions I know is on the end of a phone line?

My father was a Parkhead regular from the early 1950s until moving to Ireland in the late 1970s, attending most of Gemmell’s 418 matches for Celtic. He recounted how he evolved from coltish, reconstructed winger to one of the great players of the era.

Funnily enough, though, it’s one of his earliest and least glorious matches that came to my father’s mind.

It was pre-Stein Celtic’s early 1960s nadir, Gemmell had just broken into a struggling team and had turned in a dreadful performance against Partick Thistle at Firhill. Coming back from the game my father spotted him crossing the concourse of Glasgow Central Station with his girlfriend, anxiously scanning an early edition of the next day’s paper.

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“I hope he’s not reading the match report,” Dad remembers thinking. “You, lad, are just not going to do,” my father muttered to himself of the future legend of European football.

That memory of Gemmell soon had much more glittering ones for company, but underlines what Stein achieved with that team. While they boasted many talented players who may have had great careers regardless, Stein’s alchemy took others who may have otherwise drifted, uncovered what made them special and turned them into legends.

For my generation, memories of Gemmell, McNeill and all the rest are second hand.

As a kid, I can picture a scorching summer day at the bog, my father easing the tedium of footing turf by recounting tales of the Lisbon Lions. Our minds would be taken away to a time when Celtic ruled Europe, vividly picturing the exploits of that team that we could name though we never saw them play: Simpson, Craig, McNeill, Clark, Gemmell, Murdoch, Auld, Johnstone, Chalmers, Wallace, Lennox.

STEIN AND EUROPEAN CUP.jpg Jock Stein and Bobby Murchdoch with the European Cup. Source: AP/Press Association Images

This year the club celebrates the 50th anniversary of its greatest achievement. It now feels as much a commemoration, with Gemmell joining Johnstone, Murdoch and goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson in having passed away in recent years.

There is a cruelty in the fact that Gemmell has been taken away so close to this year’s milestone.

Added to that is the sense that the great players of that generation were cheated the rewards would have been their due today. Gemmell lived out his last years in sheltered accommodation as he struggled with ill-health.

Paul Brennan, of the blog Celtic Quick News, told yesterday how one of the site’s contributors arranged for pay TV channels for Gemmell when he heard that the Celtic great could only listen to the club’s matches on the radio, being unable to afford the subscription.

But the Lisbon Lions, like all the great teams of the past, achieved something beyond the material things of modern life, or even the passing pleasure of saluting the crowd on an anniversary.

Even as they celebrated in that dressing room with the European Cup, they had already entered a timeless, glorious realm. They will be cherished long after they are all gone, and long after we are all gone too, as those second hand memories are handed down again and again.

McIlvanney’s piece features an account of the now famous dressing room exchange in the moments after the final whistle on May 25th, 1967. Bill Shankly, Stein’s fellow Scot and then Liverpool manager, bursts into the exultant Celtic dressing room. “John,” Shankly told Stein, “you’re immortal.”

They all are.

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About the author:

Tommy Martin

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