He is now at a club where finishing second could never be a cause for celebration. As he prepares to return to Tynecastle with Celtic for a potential title-clinching match on Sunday, Craig Gordon can pause to reflect on a night in Gorgie when finishing as runners-up prompted a party.
Splitting the Old Firm in 2006 to earn a place in the Champions League qualifiers was one of the highlights of Gordon’s time at Hearts. Paul Hartley, below, converted a penalty kick to secure a 1-0 win over Aberdeen which ensured they finished above Rangers.
Gordon believes it could have been even better for Hearts in that remarkable campaign which saw George Burley controversially sacked as manager by owner Vladimir Romanov when the team were top of the table.
The disruption which followed eventually saw them finish a distant second to Celtic and Gordon still rues the dramatic New Year’s Day match at Tynecastle against his current employers. Hearts led 2-0 for almost an hour, only to lose 3-2 in the closing stages when Stephen McManus scored twice after the home side had Takis Fysass sent off for a foul on Shaun Maloney – the dismissal later rescinded by the SFA.
“Shaun took a dive and I still think that was a poor decision,” recalls Gordon. “Had we won that day, the gap would have been closed on Celtic to just one point at the top of the league. As it was, Celtic extended their lead to seven points and that was probably the day we knew we wouldn’t come back.
“We possibly could have done a little better that season too, as we started off so well. It would have been nice to see if we had been able to continue but there was a lot going on behind the scenes. It wouldn’t have taken a great deal more to push on and give Celtic a bigger fright. We still managed to get through and finish second behind Celtic and we won the Scottish Cup, so it was a good season all round.
“That 1-0 win against Aberdeen was the highlight of all the games I played at Tynecastle. It was a nervy night but we split the Old Firm and it was obviously the highest placed finish we achieved when I was there. Growing up, I always wanted to win the league at Tynecastle. I’m sure I would take some stick from my pals if I now do that on Sunday with Celtic!”
That scenario could come to pass if second-placed Aberdeen avoid defeat at Dundee on Friday night, leaving Celtic requiring a win against Hearts to formally clinch their sixth consecutive title. If Aberdeen lose at Dens, however, the champions will retain their crown without kicking a ball.
“I’ll keep a look out for what happens on Friday but I don’t mind either way,” said Gordon. “If it’s won before we take the field, we’ve done the hard work to deserve to win it at this stage anyway, so it makes no difference to me if it’s won on the pitch on Sunday or off it on Friday night. We want to keep our unbeaten run going so we want to win on Sunday. We want to keep our foot on the gas and keep going forward.
“There are still quite a few games to go this season, so it’s still a big challenge for us to try and stay undefeated in the league. We just want to keep winning to keep the run going. We’ve not tasted defeat so we don’t want to start now. That focuses the mind regardless of whether the league is won or not.”
Gordon admits Celtic will be able to take greater satisfaction from this season’s title success than they did 12 months ago when their often unconvincing form ultimately led to Ronny Deila’s departure as manager.
“It was probably more a feeling of relief when we won it last season,” said Gordon. “This one has just been about hard work, great organisation and everybody pulling in the one direction. We’ve had an incredible season so far but we’re really focused on making sure we have a good end to the campaign.”
l Craig Gordon was speaking at the launch of Eden Mill St Andrews Gin’s sponsorship of the Celtic Women’s team.