A TOWERING figure is a description that could always be applied to the 6ft 4in Craig Gordon. So monumental has been the 32-year-old’s impact in the second coming he has enjoyed this season at Celtic, though, that yesterday assistant manager John Collins dared to consider him among some of the club’s modern day colossuses.
Collins was practically pinching himself when he was asked to contemplated the fact that the club have a date with Internazonale in the Europa League last 32 tomorrow night principally because of the brilliance in continental competition of a goalkeeper they picked up on a free last summer. As a piece of business – and of course it was a piece of business that owed everything to Gordon having played only a handful of games in the previous three years because of knee problems that seemed to have ended his career – it was an “unbelievable deal”, enthused Collins.
Sufficiently unbelievable, indeed, for Ronny Deila’s right-hand man to have no qualms about seeing the move in the same jaw-dropping terms as the £650,000 – peanuts – deal that landed the club Henrik Larsson or the measly £350,000 that was all Celtic required to acquire Lubo Moravcik. “He’ll be up there – he’s got to be spoken about in the same bracket as those two,” said Collins.
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The most unbelievable aspect of Gordon’s rebirth is that his performances have made him an upgrade on the man he replaced, Fraser Forster, who was supposed to have left a £10m hole in the club’s defence when he departed for Southampton. Collins offered no comment on that, but is convinced that Gordon is superior to a certain keeper whose £9m move to Sunderland in 2007 then made for a record fee paid by a British club for a goalkeeper.
“We knew Craig was good but when you have been out two years you think he’ll never be the same again,” the Celtic assistant said. “But I think he’s better now than when I remember him from before the injuries [at Sunderland]. That’s incredible. Goalkeepers get better with age and mature. There’s every chance he can add two years to the end of his career. The way he leads his life will help him.”
That total immersion in his game makes Gordon the model player for Collins and Deila, believers in a round-the-clock dedication to the game. “From the first minute he walked in the door and I met him, you could tell he was the complete professional and in total control of his emotions,” Collins said.
“He transfers that calmness on to his defenders. He’s never shouting and bawling but he is always talking. After every game he’s upstairs at the training ground watching the video of the match. He looks at every touch he’s had, every pass-back, every kick-out, every cross that comes into the box. He studies his performances and that’s the sign of a champion. He’s class – pure class. He’s a great example to all the players about how he goes about his business. We’re just so fortunate.”
Or, rather, lucky to have a goalkeeping coach with the judgment of Stevie Woods. Gordon was delivered to the incoming management team because Woods – in contrast to many -– believed the former Hearts player’s body could again stand up to the rigours of a football existence that seemed to have broken it.
“Anyone that says other [than they would be apprehensive of signing a player that hadn’t played in two years] is telling lies. If you haven’t played for such a long time in such a key position then there’s a doubt,” Collins said. “But it’s been great news for us. We certainly never thought he was finished, but Steve Woods has to take all the credit. He brought him to the club and assessed him and gave us the green light by saying that he believed in Craig. Our goalkeeping coach has to take all the credit.”
It isn’t over-stretching it to state that, more than any other player, Gordon deserves the credit for Celtic’s ability to emerge from Group D of the Europa League last year and so ensure that Celtic Park will rock to the sound of a 60,000 sell-out on at least one occasion during Deila’s first season.
The Scottish champions’ progress swung on earning a point out in Salzburg and surviving a late onslaught to beat Croatia Zagreb at home. In both encounters, Gordon’s shot-stopping was stupendous, as he projected an aura of near invincibility. Gordon’s ability to be a matchwinning goalkeeper is what stokes the fires of possibility when assessing the contest with Inter.
“Goalkeepers are as important as strikers in that games are won and lost round about both goals. He can be brilliant – but if there are mistakes in between the flashes of brilliance then these things cost you. Consistency of performance is so important.
“Inter are very good at set-pieces and since the new manager Roberto Mancini came in [three months ago] one in three goals have come this way. Goalkeepers are vitally important when balls come into the box. Let’s hope Craig is not busy, but if he is then I’m sure he can cope with it.” Gordon has coped with far great adversity, and come through as no-one thought possible.