Craig Gordon hopes vintage years are yet to come

LIKE a good wine from the Bordeaux region where Craig Gordon made his European debut at the age of 20, goalkeepers tend to get better with age. Gordon is determined to prove he is no 
exception to that rule as he revitalises a career which appeared to have withered on the vine in the last two years.

Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon in relishing this evenings Europa League encounter with Red Bull Salzburg. Picture: SNS Group

Still only 31, Gordon’s new lease of life with Celtic this season has already earned him a recall to the Scotland squad and tonight sees him embarking upon a Europa League group stage campaign with the Scottish champions against Red Bull Salzburg in Austria.

It was in the same tournament, then called the Uefa Cup, that a precocious Gordon made his European bow for Hearts in a second round tie against Bordeaux in November 2003.

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In what was only his seventh first-team appearance for the Tynecastle club, Gordon was outstanding that night in a 1-0 first leg victory.

It was the launchpad for him to build a reputation as one of the most accomplished keepers in Europe, establishing himself as Scotland’s No 1 and earning a move to Sunderland in 2007 for a then British record fee of 
£9 million for a player in his position.

With persistent knee injuries leaving him without a club for two seasons after being released by Sunderland in the summer of 2012, it was easy to assume we had seen the best of Gordon who at one stage seemed resigned to not playing again.

But since replacing Fraser Forster in the Celtic side last month, he has looked as impressive as ever and now has his sights fixed on achieving even higher standards with both club and country.

“It’s hard to say how far I am from my peak form,” said a relaxed and reflective Gordon as Celtic arrived in a warm and sunny Salzburg yesterday afternoon.

“Who says I can’t go on and be better than what my peak was before? I don’t want to set myself that limit of just getting back to where I was before. I might get back to better than what I was before. That’s what I am striving to do.

“I want to improve. I’m more experienced now. I’ve had a lot of international games and I’ve played in the English Premier League. I want to continue getting better and improve for a few years yet. I think I can do that at Celtic.

“I appreciate these European games, because it’s been a long time since I was involved in them. Looking back at that Bordeaux game with Hearts, it’s the one people still remember and it was an important one for me.

“That was the night I realised I could play at that level. Going into the first team as a goalkeeper at just 20 is difficult, but I felt I belonged in the team that night and it gave me a great sense of confidence to go on and continue my career from that point.

“It was incredible to go there and win 1-0. Unfortunately, we couldn’t finish it off and lost the second leg 2-0, but that game in Bordeaux is one I will remember for a long time.

“The next step up for me was international football and that experience at a young age was vital for me. You don’t know until you experience it if you can handle it. I didn’t even get nervous that night – probably through the innocence of youth, not fully realising how good a team we were playing against.

“I probably get more nervous nowadays, knowing the potential of there being a few failures along the way. I know that
between now and the end of my career, there will be ups and downs and I will have to deal with them.”

Gordon is currently proving a point to both himself and to others who doubted his ability to reclaim full fitness. He was now made six first-team 
appearances for Celtic in the past month and has showed no signs of physical vulnerability.

“A lot of people think I’m made of glass,” he smiled. “So it’s nice to go into a few challenges, as I have in some of the games, and come out on the better end of things. I’ve shown I’m able to do it and maybe I needed that for my own assurance.

“Not too many players have come back the way I have after two years out, so it’s only natural that people are going to wonder about me. They will ask how it is possible and how long I can last. I don’t mind answering those questions, because it’s just what I’ve been through.

“It’s been brilliant to come back and play so many matches in a short space of time. I didn’t know if that would be possible, but I’m feeling as good as I have in a few years. I’m still well aware that my first mistake will make people look at things differently, so I have to keep my levels as high as possible.

“There are still aches and pains after games, but not in my knee – just everywhere else! I suppose that’s what happens when you are in your 30s. But no, I’ve been okay and have improved physically since the start of the season. There are things I’m still working on, technical things to improve my game, and I know it’s still early days.

“Getting back into the Scotland squad was a bit of a surprise, because I’d only played a few games for Celtic but it was fortunate Gordon Strachan had been to a few of them.

“I think I can still play at that level. It was great to get back into the squad and now I want to force my way into the manager’s thoughts for a starting spot.”