When Tommy Gemmell died this week it was as if he had come back to life. He’d been ill for some time and out of the news, but suddenly here he was again, his death reminding all Scottish football supporters of a certain age of the moment when we all knew that a Scottish club, Celtic was going to win the European Cup. They were playing the great Italian side Internationale, who were expert at a smothering kind of defence and sudden counter attack, while Celtic were an attacking team, finding it hard to create scoring chances. Now they made another attack- Murdoch to Craig on the right of the penaly box, Craig delaying and delaying then rolling the ball diagonally back to Gemmell who was legging it towards goal, an Italian defender moving to block his shot, viewing the size and speed of his opponent turned his back, while Gemmell smacked a rising shot high into the net with the goalkeeper stationary. At that moment half the population of Scotland was on its feet in front of the telly, delirious with conviction. Now we would win, and we did. Or rather eleven Celtic players did, and entered the pantheon of Scottish victors along with….eh….along with Robert the Bruce and …er….well that’s it really.
It was easy for me to identify with these heroes because they were men of my generation, born during the war, now adult and making their mark on the world. Of all of the Celtic team I especially loved Gemmell because there was something very Scottish about his gallus loping style on the pitch and his calm aggession. On another famous occasion playing for Scotland against Germany, Gemmell in full flow was fouled by the German Helmut Haller. The referee was already giving the foul when Gemmell, exasperated at his run being spoiled, faced up to the German, who scuttled away from him, only for Gemmell to chase after him and boot him in the arse. It’s not a piece of film you’d use for training yound footballers, but it recorded fhe instinctive reaction of every footballer whose piece of skill has been nullified by a deliberate foul.
It was 1967, the year of my wedding, my theology degree, my licensing and first job as a minister. It was also well into the swinging sixties, a year before the student revolt in France, a time of change, uncertainty and great hope that perhaps the old era of scarcity and violence was turning towards a new era of plenty and peace. Tommy Gemmell is forever part of my memory of that time in all its glorious and utterly mistaken optimism.
Looking from our present era of scarcity and violence half a century back to that time of promise, I have to ask where we went wrong. How did it happen that a generation who believed it would make society happier and more just, finds itself in old age amidst the wreckage of Brexit, in a society of ever- increasing injustice, in a world menaced by uncontrolled global warming and uncontrolled tyrannical liars as rulers of its most powerful nations? I can only answer for myself. I did not use my political and social opportunities as fully as I should. I didn’t think hard enough about political and social choice, nor did I work hard enough in support of good policies and fruitful social movements. At some level, I believed in magic, like the magic of the Tommy Gemmell goal, as if it had come out of nowhere, rather than out of years of training, out of fitness sustained in the face of a cigarette habit, out of disciplined teamwork and tactical education. It was magic for spectators but hard work for the players. I failed the promise of 1967 because unlike my parents I was not prepared for the blood, sweat and tears.
I cannnot say if this has also been true of my contemporaries, many of whom worked harder than me, but I can urge that it must not be true of my children’s and grandchildren’s generation. I can remind any who may listen to me, that the world is a fragile and dangerous place and homo sapiens a violent and reckless creature. The worst predictions for the future may be averted, but not without sustained and creative commitment.
Great goals are the fruit of intelligent effort.