It’s perhaps hard for people who don’t support Celtic to understand exactly what the Lisbon Lions mean to us. A group of local lads who took our club to the summit of the European game, all the while playing the most entertaining brand of football you could imagine. Whether it was the skill of Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone, the controlling play of Bobby Murdoch or the masterful dominance of Billy ‘Big Caesar’ McNeill, the Glasgow team that won the European Cup in 1967 is one that every Celtic fan can name by heart, and one that has taken on a meaning more significant than any average football side.
To us, the Celtic faithful, that team are an immense source of pride. The first team to bring the European Cup to British shores, they ensured the Bhoys would forever hold a place in the upper echelons of the footballing world. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Ajax and Juventus are the kind of clubs considered to be the most illustrious in European football and, thanks to 11 boys from Scotland, Celtic could, for a time, be considered in that bracket too.
The Lisbon Lions made history, making Celtic FC the first European Champions to come from Britain
Growing up in Glasgow, it wasn’t uncommon to see the members of that famous team around the city centre when you were out for a meal or, indeed, when you were attending a game at Celtic Park or Hampden. I was fortunate enough to have such an interaction on my way to a match one sunny Glasgow Saturday.
Walking up to Hampden Stadium to take my seat at the Scottish Cup final a few years back, I saw a man I felt like I knew. Instinctively, I said hello and asked how he was, shaking his hand at the same time. He said he was doing great, wished me well and said he hoped I enjoyed the game. The ease of the interaction struck me as odd, since I couldn’t place his face or remember his name. And then I did – it was Bobby Lennox. The same Bobby Lennox who had led the team I loved to that famous European trophy in Lisbon in 1967 – and here I was, conversing with him like he was my own grandparent.
That interaction, to me, says everything about the affection with which the Lisbon Lions are regarded by Celtic fans. The word ‘family’ is too often used in football, but to followers of Celtic, that’s exactly what the Lisbon Lions feel like – family. We know their names from before we’re even able to speak, and we know what they did for our club, even if it was decades before most of us were born.
I had the honour of meeting Lisbon Lion Bobby Lennox on my way to a match one day
Given the love that exists for Jock Stein’s great Celtic side of the 1960s, the loss of any member of that team hurts greatly. This year marks 50 years since their most famous achievement and, as time marches relentlessly on, so we are forced to say goodbye to more and more of the legends of our club who mean so much.
Unfortunately, that was once again the case on 2nd March 2017, when we lost Tommy Gemmell. Tommy died at 73 years of age after battling a long illness and his loss leaves a huge hole in the hearts of many Celtic supporters. Described by fellow Lisbon Lion Bertie Auld as “the best left back in the world at that time – without fear of contradiction”, Gemmell had all the attributes of even the most contemporary of full backs.
Think of the best of the last 30 years – Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Phillip Lahm, Dani Alves. Gemmell had what they all did and more. With a rangy stride, pace, excellent final delivery and a powerful shot that made him as much of a goal threat as any attacking player, Gemmell made Celtic a goal threat in possession and a solid defensive proposition out of it.
Tommy Gemmell was a modern full back in a bygone age
In 10 years at the club Gemmell had loved since he was a boy, he won won six league titles, three Scottish Cups and four League Cups in addition to that famous European trophy. An incredible 63 goals in 418 appearances meant he pioneered a role so often found in the best teams of the current day – that of the attacking full back.
Perhaps most special, however, is the particular distinction Tommy shares with, amongst others, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Raul and Samuel Eto’o. Like that esteemed company, Gemmell, who would go on to play for Nottingham Forest and Dundee after leaving Celtic in 1971, had the honour of scoring in two European Cup finals. As well as scoring the equalising goal in Lisbon that lead to Celtic beating Inter Milan to lift the trophy in ’67, he also scored Celtic’s only goal in a heartbreaking 2-1 defeat to Dutch giants Feyenoord in the same fixture 3 years later.
Gemmell scored Celtic’s only goal in a 2-1 defeat to Feyenoord in the 1970 European Cup final
With such achievements to his name, Gemmell wasn’t short of accolades and, if stories are to be believed, he enjoyed believing his own hype. This was something that saw relations between him and manager Jock Stein become strained, particularly after Gemmell handed a transfer request into the Celtic boardroom in 1969.
The request was the result of Gemmell being dropped by Stein following his infamous indiscretion against German Helmut Haller during an international fixture with Scotland. “I booted the smirking Haller up the backside and the ref didn’t miss that,” said Gemmell in his 2014 autobiography. Referencing Stein’s refusal to acknowledge any interest in the Scottish international from other clubs following his transfer request, Gemmell gave more than a glimpse of the arrogance for which he’d become known. “I was on that bloody transfer list for just over two years,” he said, “and, according to my manager, no one was interested. I was a European Cup-winner, a regular international and, according to some, even Big Jock, the best left-back in the world. But still I wasn’t of any interest to any other club on the planet.” Gemmell even went as far as to say the debacle cost him a move to Vic Buckingham’s Barcelona but that he still loved Jock Stein nonetheless.
Ask Bertie Auld if his friend Gemmell was arrogant in his younger days and he’ll not deny it – but he will defend it. “He had everything in his locker to be arrogant about,” Auld told the BBC, “and he always left you with a smile on your face. He was arrogant; the strip started to get tighter and tighter from the dressing room to the tunnel and from the tunnel to the park, because that was his arena. He was a showman.”
Image Source: Evening Times
A showman, a winner, an unforgettable player. These are all words that could be used to describe Tommy Gemmell. But I’d like to use my own words. I’d like to say thank you to Tommy. Thank you for helping to make the club I love one of the greatest in the world. Thank you for the memories you gave me, the stories you told, both on and off the pitch, and thank you for being a part of one of the most iconic teams in football history.
But more than that, thank you for the connection you gave me to times gone by. In you, I saw one of the many Celtic players my grandad was so entertained by. It was because of you, and the players you played with, that my Grandad loved Celtic Football Club. It was because of you that my mum loved Celtic Football Club. And, therefore, it’s because of you that I love Celtic Football Club. Thanks for all of it Tommy. Rest in peace, Lisbon Lion – you’ll never walk alone.