Craig Gordon: We’ll probably have to play even better in Slovenia

Craig Gordon celebrates after Martin Skrtel's own goal put Scotland in front against Slovakia. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS
Craig Gordon celebrates after Martin Skrtel's own goal put Scotland in front against Slovakia. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS
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Craig Gordon had a night to remember at Hampden on Thursday as he won his 50th cap for Scotland to take his place on the SFA’s International Roll of Honour.

But it is an evening he wishes he could forget which keeps Gordon firmly grounded as he tries to help his country keep their World Cup qualification quest on track this weekend.

For as much as he savoured the 1-0 win over Slovakia which maintained hopes of reaching the play-offs for a place in the finals next summer, Gordon knows from bitter experience that the promise of success can be so cruelly snatched away at the last gasp of a campaign.

Ten years on, the pain of Christian Panucci’s 90th-minute winner for Italy at Hampden on a night when victory for Scotland would have taken them to the Euro 2008 finals still haunts the Celtic goalkeeper.

“I’m not really dreaming about qualifying yet,” he said, ahead of tomorrow’s final must-win Group F qualifier against Slovenia in Ljubljana. “I played in that game against Italy when we were so close but didn’t manage to do it in 2007, so I know what that feels like. I’d rather not feel that way again.

“We’ve still got it in our own hands this time but we’re away from home and Slovenia are a good team. It took us until very late in the game to beat them at Hampden in March. We know we’ll have to play really well – probably better than we did against Slovakia on Thursday.

“It was definitely one of my sweetest moments on Thursday, especially with winning my 50th cap as well as the win. It’s right up there as far as my Scotland career goes. There was obviously the win over France in Paris during that Euro 2008 campaign as well. So there have been some great highs and hopefully there’s another one to come in Slovenia.

“I never gave up on this campaign. We knew it was going to be difficult to qualify and it’s still going to be difficult. We still need to go to Slovenia and win, and even if we do that, we’ll have a double-header in the play-offs against another team who have finished second in their group. So it’s still a fair distance away. There’s still a lot of work to do. We’ve kept it going to the last game and given ourselves a great chance, which is what we needed to do.

“The atmosphere is great in the squad at the moment. To win a game the way we did against Slovakia is always going to help us bounce into the next game with an uplifting feeling.”

Gordon kept his 22nd clean sheet in those half-century of appearances on Thursday and it is the first time since 1999 that Scotland have recorded three consecutive shutouts in a qualifying campaign.

The 34-year-old’s form for Scotland since his comeback from injury in 2014 has been impressive, with seven clean sheets in the ten games he has played in that period to firmly re-establish himself as the country’s number one keeper.

“The three clean sheets in a row is massive from my point of view,” he added. “That’s a good place to start to try and win any game. It took us until almost the last minute to find a way past the Slovakian keeper, who was fantastic, so it was nice to finally see the ball go past him.

“I’ll need to look it up to see when the last time we kept four clean sheets was.”

The answer is during the successful 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign when Craig Brown’s squad actually kept six clean sheets in a row, the appearances in goal split between Jim Leighton, 
pictured, and Andy Goram.

With the three-in-a-row in 1999 shared by Neil Sullivan and Jonathan Gould, it means Gordon is aiming to be the first Scotland keeper to keep four successive clean sheets in a campaign since Leighton racked up six on the bounce en route to the Euro 96 finals.

“We’ve been good at defending in the last few games,” added Gordon. “It’s a great place for the rest of the team to start from, if we are defending well. We limited Slovakia to just a few opportunities, so it was a good performance from the defence to set the team up to go and try to win the game.

“It’s a sign of good fitness in the squad that we keep going and score so many late goals. We said at half-time that Slovakia might tire towards the end after playing for so long with ten men after having Robert Mak sent off so early in the game. We knew we’d probably have a chance to get on top in the last ten or 15 minutes and win the game from there. That’s how it turned out. We kept going and managed to force the ball over the line.

“We also coped better with them sending the big guys up at the end to try to get an equaliser. We knew we’d have to head some balls away in the last few minutes and I even had big Chris Martin back in front of me heading one away at the end. We dealt with that really well and didn’t give them any chances late in the game.

“We’ve used a lot of players in this campaign, the squad’s turned around quite a lot. We’re in a good place at the minute. We weren’t at our best against Slovakia but we got the job done. That’s a good sign.”