It is only two months short of 13 years since Craig Gordon made his Scotland debut. The Celtic keeper remembers vividly the day at Easter Road that brought a 4-1 friendly win over Trinidad and Tobago. As another World Cup qualifying campaign threatens to slide past without a finals appearance ever seeming likely, Gordon admits that when he embarked on his international career in 2004 he never considered his Scotland era could be so utterly bereft. His three-year spell sidelined with injury means the 34-year-old has only played in four of the country’s ten-campaign run of qualifying failure – let’s not be reticent about adding the current one – but, hey, still.
“[My debut] wasn’t really that long after we had qualified [in 1998]. That’s how long I have been playing,” he said. “I didn’t think we’d go this long without it. It had only been a few years since the last one and we had missed out on only a couple since then and we had a good enough team that we could push for the play-off places and if you get a good draw that gives you a good chance of getting in.”
Two play-offs in the past 20 years has been the sum total of Scotland’s close calls, the last of these in 2003 when Gordon was still a much-vaunted Scotland under-21 keeper then excelling for Hearts. It would require a miracle from Gordon Strachan’s men to extricate themselves from the desperate situation in which they find themselves in Group F, whereby they require to win tonight at home to Slovenia and at least four of the five games to follow that to give themselves a genuine hope of making the play-offs. It seems unfair to ask Gordon what has gone wrong for Scotland over the past two decades when such media conferences tend to only last about 20 minutes.
“We have definitely had our chances,” he said. “There’s been games where we should have done better. We have put ourselves in good positions in groups at times and not managed to get over the line and get to the finals or the play-off spot to do that. We can’t blame anybody other than ourselves. There’s games against teams that we should have taken more points from and didn’t do it. You can point to a few individual games but overall we have just not managed to get there for a number of reasons.”
Gordon can’t afford to be picky about his days playing for Scotland because they looked to have ended long ago. That is why, while the 3-0 defeat by England in November was a night to forget for the country, it was one to treasure for the Celtic goalkeeper. The 45th cap he earned at Wembley was the culmination of a comeback to end all comebacks.
When he signed for Celtic in the summer of 2014 following two years without a club, it was his aim to play at as high a level as he could. The fact that Chelsea had bids knocked back for him in January demonstrates he ticked that box off long ago. He ticked off two others when winning titles and appearing in the Champions League for Celtic. Claiming the No.1 jersey for a vital World Cup qualifier brought a strong sense of fulfillment.
“That was always one of the long-term goals, to do that. That was a big focus of what I wanted to achieve coming back,” said Gordon, who was speaking at an event with Vauxhall, the Scotland team sponsor. “There was a lot of steps between that but certainly that was the one I thought, if I did get back playing and playing well for a big team, to get noticed by the national team, that was a big thing for me, to get chosen to play a competitive game again. Then, when you get there, you reassess it and go again. The next thing would be to stay there, to try and get to 50 caps and try and go beyond that and get as many as I possibly can. That was the aim and now I have more to aim at.”
Celtic provided Gordon with the launchpad to enjoy, effectively, a second life in football.
And the club can provide the basis for Scotland to breathe again in a World Cup qualifying campaign. The keeper is unabashed about believing Gordon Strachan would have legitimate reasons for packing his team with Gordon’s club team-mates Scott Brown, James Forrest, Stuart Armstrong, Kieran Tierney and Leigh Griffiths.
With only two defeats in all competitions across the past six months – both in the Champions League – and an unbeaten domestic season, Celtic players are in a place that very few others in the Scotland squad would recognise at club level. “We are playing well at the moment,” Gordon said of Celtic. “We know each other’s games and there’s a case for everybody playing. We know how each other plays, there are partnerships. There is confidence through just being not used to losing as well, so you go into the games expecting to do well. You can never expect to win but if you go in with the confidence that you are playing well, which we are, it certainly helps in winning games.
“We’ve dealt with setbacks in games at Celtic really well because you are never going to go through a season and not have them, and not have to come back from things. Every time we have been asked to do that we have been able to. As a group we have that and hopefully we can bring that to this team as well.”
Scotland need a sackful of Brendan Rodgers’ magic dust.