HOLLOW-EYED, head bowed and voice mournful, as Craig Gordon spoke in the immediate aftermath of Celtic’s Champions League qualifying exit, the keeper was the embodiment of inconsolable. Ultimately, though, the 31-year-old probably was the one person at Parkhead who could draw consolation on a desolate evening for his club. And the one player whose contribution would have offered a scintilla of consolation to a seething support.
Gordon said that “absolutely” the defeat by Maribor represented one of the biggest disappointments of his career. Yet the very fact that he could talk of a career in the present tense was not lost on him either. “Maybe in a few days’ time I’ll look back more on the positive of just playing,” he said. “When that music came on at the start, the noise that went round the ground was a pretty emotional moment for me to be out in the middle of it, to feel the reception the players got.”
The keeper’s mind was in a whirl the other night, and little wonder. He was clearly torn between being crushed by the fact he finished on the losing side in such a contest, and comforted that he could even be on the losing side in such a contest.
A three-year period during which injuries seemed certain to deprive him of any opportunity to prosper professionally is bound to have that effect. When Gordon was released by Sunderland in the summer of 2012, it felt like the Wearside club were putting their £9 million goalkeeper out of his misery. He had featured in only one competitive outing in the previous 15 months. The fact this appearance came in the closing weeks of the 2011-12 season made it feel like a pity selection.
Issues arising from a tendon problem and a snapped cruciate ligament in his left knee meant that, when Gordon slunk away from Sunderland, the fear was that he would never return to club football. When he announced a year later that he was going to work his way back to fitness, it seemed he was railing against the inevitable. His decision to accept a coaching role with Dumbarton suggested he had stopped railing. And, when Ally McCoist provided him training facilities at Rangers, it seemed the opportunity for Gordon to get something out of his system.
All those elements within a comeback that is proving remarkable must flit through Gordon’s mind whenever he steps out on to the pitch. Celtic offered him a way back into football and today he will make his fifth appearance for the club when he travels to Dens Park to face the Dundee team moulded by former Hearts team-mate Paul Hartley.
Gordon is Celtic’s undisputed No.1, Ronny Deila handing him that mantle the moment Fraser Forster moved to Southampton in a £10m deal three weeks ago. Gordon’s impact since then has been such that last week, almost four years after the last of his 40 caps, he was recalled to the Scotland squad by Gordon Strachan. Then, on Friday, Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell cited the fact that the former Hearts man had filled Forster’s shoes as evidence that Celtic were not downsizing.
A player with a 6ft 4in frame and an on-field presence to match can now feel he has not been shrunk by circumstance. Yet, he doesn’t pretend to know exactly where he stands, when asked about his level now compared to when he was last playing regularly, almost three years ago. “It’s difficult to remember that far back,” he said. “I’m not sure, I’m just working as hard as I possibly can to get to what I achieved before and, if possible, to try to improve myself.”
Gordon seemed almost humbled by the fact that his rehabilitation has so rapidly brought a reunion with the national team. “I’m delighted with it – that was a great piece of news this week. I didn’t really expect it after so few games but it’s something to look forward to.”
He certainly didn’t expect to be in that environment again. “Yeah, or even on a football pitch, so I’ve got to take stock of that and realise I’m back playing and that’s an achievement in itself. I just wanted to go a stage further [in the Champions League] and I haven’t been able to do it.”
For a performer who always oozed professionalism and iron will, Gordon’s mental edge appears razor sharp in his unwillingness to draw greater comfort from just being along for the ride in Celtic’s European campaign. The other night he couldn’t quite comprehend his side had been ejected before they reached their desired destination, an outcome that unfolded when Marcos Tavares sent a looping shot over the blameless Gordon to give the Slovenian side a 1-0 win in Glasgow.
“It was a massive chance for the club and for me personally. I’ve never played in the Champions League and just to get there, to taste it… I’m bitterly disappointed we’re not there this year. It’s so hard to take – but looking back we probably weren’t good enough,” Gordon admitted. “I thought we’d need to score goals [after the 1-1 away leg]. We knew they’d always be dangerous, I said at the end of the first leg that the second would suit them better and it did. They created a lot of chances for an away team. It was just disappointing from our point of view that we never really got control of the game and pinned them in their own half.”
Gordon admitted the elimination was all the more exasperating because of the second chance afforded by the Legia Warsaw paperwork error that meant Celtic progressed to the Maribor play-off despite their defeat on the pitch by the Polish side. Yet, the fact that Gordon can look forward to a Europa League campaign that will pit Deila’s team against Salzburg, Dinamo Zagreb and Astra, meant he still felt Celtic derived benefit from their outrageous fortune. “It could’ve been worse, couldn’t it? We could have had to play a qualifier for the Europa League so at least we have the groups,” he said.
Gordon couldn’t say if his own second chance could really have gone any better, with the player looking every inch the international keeper of old with some smart saves on Tuesday. “There were always going to be bits and pieces I’d have to work on, but that happens to anyone regardless of injury,” he said. “You’re always working – every keeper has his weaknesses and I’m no different, I’ll be working on them as hard as I can.”
Gordon is chuffed that he didn’t need to work on convincing his national manager. He did not speak to Strachan before being named in the squad for the opening Euro 2016 qualifier away to Germany next Sunday, and will only do so he when meets up with the other players tomorrow. That is the normal procedure, and it is football normality that Gordon craves.
“It feels like a real vote of confidence,” he said. “He [Strachan] was here at the Dundee United game and again at the Maribor game. I just have to get back into the swing of things, play as many games as I can and try to force my way back into contention for a few more caps.” If he does that, Gordon will move beyond the point when his merits are discussed in the context of his medical history.