Sometimes, an Oxford legend becomes international legend, sometimes an Oxford no-mark becomes an international legend, sometimes an Oxford legend becomes an international no-mark. Sometimes when you dredge the depths of World Cup squads, you find Scot Gemmill.
I thought I’d dodged a bullet when I saw that Gemmil had been in the 1998 Scotland squad. I knew he had a brief coaching role with us in the early days of Jim Smith’s return to the club in 2006, but it had been more fleeting than Doudou’s fabled Oxford career and I thought I could ignore it. For completeness I checked Rageonline and, to my absolute horror, it turns out Gemmill actually played for us, just once, as substitute.
And that’s pretty much Gemmill’s story – a solid career with Everton and Nottingham Forest afforded him 26 caps for his country and a place in the ’98 World Cup squad. He didn’t play, sitting it out alongside Matt Elliot. For us, he came on as a sub for Liam Horsted in Jim Smith’s second game in charge against Mansfield. It was a 0-1 defeat. Then he left for New Zealand and a few weeks later we were relegated.
Anyway, that’s enough about Scot Gemmill, which is a relief, because there is no more, let’s talk about his dad; Archie.
I love Archie Gemmill. 1982 was the first World Cup that consumed me, but 1978 was the first I remember. To my father’s evident Scottish pride, Scotland were the only British team to qualify for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. I remember him draping a tartan rug on the mantelpiece on the evening of the opening game against Peru.
It turns out that this was more than nationalist pride because Scotland, the nation, had been convinced by manager Ally Macleod that by the end of the tournament, Scotland, the football team, would be champions of the world.
It wasn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds – Scotland had Kenny Dalglish and Graham Souness from European champions Liverpool, plus Kenny Burns, John Robertson and Archie Gemmill from English champions (and soon to be two-times European Cup winners) Nottingham Forest. It had four Manchester United players and a smattering of others with distinguished club careers. At its core, Scotland had some of the best players in Europe.
Scotland came out for their opening game wearing blue shirts, blue shorts and red socks. Peru were in all white with a red sash. Add the Adidas Tango match ball and aesthetically, no game of football looked better.
I was six, and was only allowed to watch the first half in which Scotland’s bravado gave way for crippling frailties. Scotland took the lead with Joe Jordan, but conceded just before half-time. In the second half they collapsed to a 1-3 shock defeat.
Immediately afterwards, Scottish winger Willie Johnston failed a drugs test after taking a hay fever tablet and was sent home. Scotland’s campaign was falling apart.
My dad thought all this would be redressed in the next game against Iran, but despite taking the lead again, they were pegged back to a 1-1 draw. Scotland’s last game was against one of the powerhouses of European football – The Netherlands. They’d also been beaten by the revelatory Peruvians, but they’d beaten Iran. Scotland needed to win by three clear goals to go through.
Though only 29, Gemmill looked like a middle-aged Geography teacher with his wisps of hair and was at the centre of everything. He was booked in the opening minute, played a cameo in Kenny Dalglish’s equaliser on half-time. A minute into the second-half he scored a penalty to give the Scots the lead. On 68 minutes, Gemmill picked put the ball on the right win from Dalglish and went on an improbable dribble into the Dutch box, nutmegging his own player and bending the ball into the top left hand corner. It was the greatest goal scored by any Scotsman.
Searching for another to see them through, four minutes later Johnny Rep pulled things back to 2-3 with a trademark long range drive. It was a heroic win, but a bitter defeat as the Scots tumbled out. Holland would go on to lose to Argentina in the final in what many believe was a preordained victory for the hosts.
The bittersweet nature of that win taught me, at six years old, what football was all about.
Fast forward 20 years and Scotland had qualified for the 1998 edition in France; their sixth tournament in seven, but they were already in decline. 2018 marks their fifth straight World Cup without qualifying.
Nestled on the bench was Scot Gemmil, a famous name, but with none of the impact. Fitting somehow. If Archie was the symbol of Scotland’s high water mark in the World Cup, 1998 brought an era to the close, like rock, the Gemmill name runs right through it all.
Incidentally, Scot is short for Scotland, Scotland legend Archie Gemmill called his son Scotland, and for that I love him even more.