I first met Tam Gemmell in the spring of 1965. I had signed for the club in January 1965 and although I was still halfway through the fourth year of the five-year course in dentistry – and should have been attending medical classes at the Royal Infirmary most mornings – I managed to ‘dog-off’ sometimes to train with the full-timers at Celtic Park.
Two months later, Jock Stein arrived; and everything changed!
Training was much more interesting than before, a lot of it was done with a ball and there was a fair bit of competition in all the various activities.
Although I was another fullback and therefore a possible future rival, Tam could not have been more helpful and it was not long before I considered him to be a pal.
When I made the first team later that year, he was even more considerate. When my nerves might have been showing, he made me feel much more comfortable as we waited to go down the tunnel for a match.
Soon, whenever we went to Seamill for a few days or travelled abroad, we were paired up together as room-mates. However, this could have its problems.
Tam had many good qualities but he also could have his little idiosyncracies. It had been made quite clear to me by the Boss that he expected me to keep an eye on Tam and make sure that he was ‘there’ when he was supposed to be ‘there’. I never thought much about this request – or perhaps command would be a better word – until certain events started to play a part in my life.
On a foreign trip, for instance, we would leave our room at the same time to come.down for breakfast. Ten minutes later, though, the Boss would be asking me “Cairney, where is he?” and I was thinking that he had left the room at the same time as me and come down in the same lift. I even saw him in the foyer. But since then, I didn’t know!
Mr Stein would ask me the same question when we were all seated in the bus ready to go to training. Neilly Mochan would do a head count, find out we were one short, tell the Boss it was Tam and the Boss would shout out my name and ask the inevitable question, “where the hell is he?”
Unfortunately, these questions from the man in charge, asked in a decided tone of asperity, were ones that I could not answer with any degree of accuracy.
Over the years, Tam could be accused of being noisy, argumentative, flamboyant – he had the flashy suits and the car with the ‘Colonel Bogey’ horn – and even arrogant at times, but he also delivered, his scoring record an excellent one for a fullback and his ability to drive home a penalty a great bonus.
Probably his most famous goal was the equaliser in the European Cup final in Lisbon, although with great modesty might I say that he received such a perfect pass along the 18-yard line that his Granny could probably have knocked that one in?
The last few years of his life have been tough. That once powerful frame began to weaken and Tam was eventually confined to his bed, a situation such a strong athlete must have found really difficult to cope with. Eventually, on 2nd March, he succumbed to his illness and passed away in the early hours of the morning.
Our thoughts at this time must with his wife Mary, children Karen and David plus his extended family. In the years since Celtic Football Club was founded in 1887, there have been many fine full-backs who have worn the hoops with distinction but undoubtedly the name of Tommy Gemmell would be right up there with the best of them.
May he now rest in peace.