Aidan Smith's Saturday Interview: Hearts' Craig Gordon on wanting to lift the Scottish Cup with Jambos again and why the Player of the Year award isn't in the bag yet
When David Gordon’s son was born he plumped for a good Scottish name. Not exotic or flash, rather solid and dependable, and derived from the Gaelic creag, it means “rocky hill”.
The lad grew up to be a goalkeeper like his dad but Craig Gordon has deviated from the one-time Stirling Albion custodian’s attitude to nomenclature. “So,” I say, “you’ve decided to call your son Ace.” He laughs: “No pressure, eh? He’s only nine months old but hopefully he’ll grow into it. This is his proud daddy talking but already I think he’s a great wee keeper. We’ve got tiny goals set up in the front-room at home and if I had my phone I’d show you some of his saves.”
Scotland’s No 1 has just finished training with Hearts and self-consciously we’re sat opposite each other at a desk in one of Oriam’s vast halls, otherwise empty and deserted, which must look odd from the high windows, so it’s almost a relief when a women’s team get out the balls and start battering them over our heads.
We’ve spoken before, back in his Sunderland days when he was Britain’s most expensive goalie, but it wasn’t a memorable interview, and probably not for him either. The club press officer insisted on sitting in on the chat, never a good thing, and this encouraged caution in Gordon, though as they say in football, he may have this in his locker anyway. You want goalies to be guarded on the pitch, not in conversation, and just about the most interesting fact I was able to glean that day was that he was partial to a game of badminton.
Today, I think, will go better. He’s lived a bit, died a bit – figuratively, I mean, when he thought he was finished – and if this really is the autumn of his career then all its leaves seem to be golden. Right enough, in no time we’ve left the gentle pit-pat of the shuttlecock far behind and are discussing Games of Thrones. “I didn’t think it was my kind of thing,” he says of the most blood-drenched and bonktastic TV show there’s ever been, “but during lockdown I binge-watched the entire boxset.”
Little Ace has got a head start on his father for Gordon was slightly older when he started flinging himself across the carpet in Balerno on Edinburgh’s western fringes. “I think my goals were supposed to move into the garden but they never did. Dad was always hitting shots at me, and Mum would do it when he wasn’t around, although she wasn’t best pleased if one of her ornaments went flying, which happened now and again.”
Now it’s records which he’s smashing. Last time out for the national team, against Denmark in November, Gordon eased past the marker for the longest span of a Scotland goalie’s term in office. More seem almost certain to be broken, such has been his sensational form of late.
It’s the resumption of the Premiership, 2021-22, which many Jambos prefer to call The Craig Gordon Show. They’ve supped their intermission Kia-Ora and they’re ready for their hero, towel draped over the shoulder, to take that long, slow walk to his line and pick up where he left off with double-saves, triple-blocks and those stops where he shoots out a superhuman hand when a goal seemed certain and you think: “Was that CGI?” In this case, CGI stands for Craig Gordon Instinctiveness.
Ah, but it won’t be that easy and our man has learned to take nothing for granted. “The break, although it was obviously necessary, came at the wrong time for me. The form was good and the team were doing well, so it’s been a little bit frustrating. I can’t wait to get playing again but I can’t expect to carry on as before without doing the work. The first game back will be a little bit nerve-wracking. You don’t know if you’re going to take off at exactly the same speed. It’ll be the same for everybody so there will be a lot of nervous energy around.”
The work, as he calls it, will eventually have to continue without the considerable protection up in front of him offered by John Souttar who’s been successfully coveted by Rangers on a pre-contract deal. “We'll obviously miss him,” admits Gordon. “He showed his quality in the last Scotland match by coming back into international football and putting in an unbelievable performance.
“He injured his Achilles just a week or two after I returned to Hearts so I know his character and how good he's been in the dressing-room even when he was out for so long. He's been completely professional and I’ve got experience of what it takes to come back from bad injuries. All you can do is keep working hard, no matter how difficult that can be mentally and how draining. I've nothing but admiration for John and wish him all the best."
Our chat might have been another Zoom affair but restrictions have lifted sufficiently to allow us to meet, though Gordon stays masked-up. Well, he’s in the veteran class for his profession, having turned 39 on Hogmanay. That one was quiet because of Covid but he’s well used to anticlimactic birthdays. “Growing up, when my folks couldn’t wait to go first-footing, I’d be like: ‘Is that it for me, then?’”
Gordon is looking after himself in every way. It’s what you do when for him during one horribly dark interlude, the ball very much seemed to be up on the slates. And it’s what you do when, for club and country, 2022 promises so much.
He’d love to win the Scottish Cup again, a trophy lifted with Hearts first time round and as part of Celtic’s Treble Treble. “So I’ve won it a lot but you never get tired of winning and you always want more. Even board games with the kids I always wanted to win. [He has two children from his first marriage and now lives with partner Summer Harl, mum to Ace and a former presenter on Celtic TV]. Unfortunately for them I was Competitive Dad but to win the cup as Hearts captain, to walk up those steps to collect it, an entirely new experience, would be wonderful. I don’t know how much time I’ve got left in the game so why not this season? That’s why we’re in the competition.”
Then there’s the World Cup which if Scotland can reach the finals would mean that for Gordon ’22 would be bookended in the most eccentric fashion: Auchinleck, where Hearts begin the cup campaign next Saturday, and Qatar.
“Indescribable” is how Gordon views the prospect of us participating in the greatest show on earth for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century. “It would be the best thing any of us could do in out careers, just incredible. Maybe because the generation before us played in World Cups so regularly it was almost taken for granted – but because we haven’t been there for long qualification becomes the thing that everybody wants. Personally, one again, this will be my best shot. That puts a lot of pressure on the playoffs but I want to be ready.”
What makes this Scotland different from the previous ones? “We’ve got a really good group of guys in the squad. We had in the past as well but there seems to be a stronger connection this time. There’s a will on the part of everyone to be there, to turn up every time, and maybe before it was easy to call off with an injury. Now we’ve got guys who’ll come to camp and try and try to get on the pitch. They’re all desperate to play and they’ll be there for the duration. Everyone wants to help each other and be successful. There’s a feelgood factor with the fans right behind us and the squad is a really enjoyable place to be.”
But, Gordon stresses, there are no certainties. Fortunes in football can change in an instant. He’s been one of the unluckiest goalies around with the injuries suffered. Post-Sunderland he was out of the game for two years. His knees had given up on him and he thought football had, too. “How many sleepless nights?” I ask. “Actually, not as many as you might think. It’s true that I didn’t think I would play again. I was 29 and didn’t know what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I was in limbo. But that was a year. Then I thought to myself: ‘Okay, I’ve tried my best, but this is the hand I’ve been dealt.’ I accepted it and I was at peace.
“Looking back, that was the best thing. Rather than hammer away fighting to get fit again I was able to enjoy pure rest for a prolonged period. Then I was playing golf one day, expecting to be in pain afterwards, and I wasn’t. I was like: ‘Maybe I could give the football another go … ’”
Either side of the wilderness years there have been managers and rival keepers who have posed challenges to Gordon. It’s quite a list: Roy Keane, Brendan Rodgers, Dorus de Vries, Neil Lennon, Vasilis Barkas. Our man, though, has seen them all off to the extent he’s arguably now playing the best football of his career.
I cannot see whether Gordon is smiling behind his mask when I read out the list but, despite his disinclination towards the provocative statement and also his innate modesty, I wouldn’t be surprised. Has he managed to endure? “I don’t know,” he says, then he has another go: “Football is always about opinions. There have been good coaches in my career and some not so good.”
We discuss sweeper-keepers and the current fetish – for that is what it is – for goalies to be instigating attacks with a measured pass which must bisect a couple of lurking attackers. Rodgers recruited De Vries specifically for this duty but Gordon ultimately proved better with his hands than the new guy and won back his place having researched how best to use his feet. “I studied the keepers who were playing out from the back – [Manuel] Neuer, [Marc-Andre] ter Stegen, Andre [Onana], Ederson – having decided: ‘I’m going to understand this and put it into my game.’ And Brendan was good. He said: ‘Take responsibility, make a good pass. If your team-mate doesn’t control it, don’t worry – it’s them who’ll get replaced.’” Barkas, of course, was the man signed for ten-in-a-row. The Celtic faithful still wonder whether keeping faith with Gordon would have produced a different outcome.
Such obstacles are nothing new. He was on the small side for a goalie in his youth and it was touch and go whether Hearts, the team he supported, would sign him up. It might have been a case of “Sorry, son, you’re too wee … ” but in his favour, and to compensate for his lack of inches, Gordon was already developing his technique for the reaction save at close quarters which has become his trademark and gets Sportscene drooling.
“I enjoy those moments. Sometimes it probably looks like the striker has just hit the ball off me but there’s a lot of work involved and positionally I have to be spot-on.” Gordon’s trick in these situations is to assume Zen-like calm whereas Allan McGregor is more intimidatory. “We’re different personalities,” he says of an old chum going all the way back to an Edinburgh select for under-14s when Gordon was usually on the bench. He’s long since overshot McGregor in height and, for Scotland, plays on.
And he’s Player of the Year, yes? Certainly of the half-year if the season wasn’t going to be re-starting. The award from the football writers has been won twice by half a dozen players and he’s one of them. Another success and he’d be out on his own; not only that but the most mature recipient. “I didn’t know that,” he says. “I keep being told I’m the oldest this and longest-running that but that’s a new one. Listen, though, there’s a lot of football to be played yet and there are a lot of great players in the league. Maybe there’s a compilation of my best saves on YouTube but there’s bound to be one of my bloopers as well. In football, as I say because I know, nothing’s certain.”
Okay, but as the nation’s last line of defence it’s pretty much a fact that he’s counted them in and counted them out. Along with McGregor, Gordon has outlasted Alan Rough’s bubble perm, Ronnie Simpson and his false teeth and Arbroath’s Ned Doig from more than a century ago who was shy about being bald so caps came in useful. Now only Jim Leighton on those magnificently bandy legs stands in Gordon’s way as Scotland’s most enduring No 1.
“Now that I do know,” he says, and I’m pretty sure he’s smiling again. “It’s a wee piece of motivation that’ll keep me going.”
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