Having waited so long to take his place at European football’s top table, Craig Gordon cannot be grudged his inclination to dine out for some time to come on just one split-second of his Champions League experience.
In the final analysis, his breathtaking save to keep out Luis Suarez’s close-range header just before half-time at Celtic Park on Wednesday night could neither spare them from defeat against Barcelona nor prevent their hopes of reaching the knockout stages of European competition this season from coming to an end.
But just as Gordon takes personal satisfaction from his moment of brilliance against Suarez, he also regards the overall development of Celtic under Brendan Rodgers during a hugely testing group stage campaign as an indication of far brighter times to come for the Scottish champions at the highest level of club competition.
They will finish bottom of Group C regardless of the outcome of their final fixture at Manchester City on 6 December, as their pre-draw status as fourth seeds suggested they would, but the goalkeeper believes the lessons learned over the past few months can lay the platform for a more competitive challenge next season.
“There were a lot of players in our squad who hadn’t played Champions League football before this year,” said Gordon. “So to have that taste and the knowledge of how to play in these games – because it’s a different test to what we’re used to – is definitely going to help this group of players in the Champions League next year, should we get there.
“At times we have played quite well in the group. We certainly feel there was an improvement in how we went about things and what we have learned from the games where we haven’t done so well, we have tried to put into practice in the next games. Going into next year’s campaign we can really look to build on the successes of this one.
“That’s the challenge. We’ve got one more game in this season’s competition, we’ll go into it and try to win and go out with a bang. We’ve nothing to lose. We’ll then have to wait, we’ll have to get our heads down and work hard for the remainder of this season and do as well as we possibly can to make sure we get another crack at it next season.
“It’s been a great campaign in terms of the quality of opposition we’ve faced and the stadiums we’ve played in. Every away stadium we’ve played in has been a big stadium. It’s a tough group with great teams in it. I don’t think we could have picked a much harder group. From that point of view, the games have been big, they’ve been difficult and that’s what you want to play in and test yourself in.
“Occasions like Wednesday night against Barcelona don’t come around very often. I have waited my whole career to play at this level. There was a lot of hard work to get here so you may as well go out and enjoy it. The manager stressed that before the game to everyone to go and enjoy it and not be over-awed by the occasion. At times we did and we kept the ball and created chances on the break. If we had taken one of them, then we might have put them under pressure, the crowd gets a lift and you never know what could have happened. I don’t think we were that far off it on Wednesday night.
“I saw my save from Suarez again this morning and it is one I will probably look back upon fondly when my career is finished. To make a save from someone like that, a world superstar like Suarez, is something that makes everyone sit up and take notice.”
For 33-year-old Gordon, it was another moment of personal vindication in a season in which his time at Celtic appeared to be up at one stage.
But after being dropped in favour of Dorus de Vries in September, a setback which he admits briefly prompted him to consider his future at the club, Gordon has adapted impressively to Rodgers’ demands for a goalkeeper who uses his feet to link play effectively with the outfield players.
So much so, Gordon believes he is now more accomplished than he was when Hearts sold him to Sunderland for a then record British fee for a keeper of £9 million.
“I’ve probably got more now than I had then,” he reflected. “Yeah, I would say so. The obvious first reaction when I was dropped was that the manager didn’t fancy me, then after about two days I thought ‘let’s do something about it’. I was probably a bear with a sore head for a couple of days.
“But very soon I came round. You’ve got two choices, what are you going to do about it? There is only one choice I was ever going to make and that was to work as hard as I possibly could. It was similar to when I was out for two years through injury – it was a case of let’s do all I can and if it doesn’t work then fine. It was back to the drawing board to do all I could do to make myself available for selection to get back in and if I do get back in take my chance.
“I’ve been enjoying it here. It’s been great. The manager has come in and the place has got a big lift.
“We’ve played some great football, scoring a lot of goals. It’s been good to be part of and I didn’t want to lose that. I didn’t want to throw it away. I wanted to give myself every opportunity to get involved and be part of it.”