Robbie Neilson remembers a time when it was impossible to find a way past Craig Gordon in training but, while he insists his former team-mate is still world class, he hopes there will be some chinks in his armour tomorrow.
Hearts travel to Parkhead, where they will need to find their way past the Scotland goalkeeper if they are to pick up their first league win at Parkhead since 2007. The three head to heads so far this season have ended with two Premiership draws and a 2-1 loss at Tynecastle in the League Cup.
Gordon has been in form in those contests, denying Prince Buaben with a superb save in the most recent of the fixtures.
Those performances are exactly what Neilson would expect from the former Hearts goalie, whom he ranks highly. That was the reason he tried to lure him back to Gorgie when he first took charge before losing out to the league champions and the incentive of Champions League football.
There are no grudges, though, and he is thrilled that Gordon’s battling qualities have been rewarded, and that is back in contention for the Scotland No 1 shirt when the World Cup qualifiers begin.
“I’m delighted for him. I know Craig well and he had his issues with his knee. He was thinking about retiring so to get back in and then to get back to the level he is at is phenomenal. The only issue was the knee. If he got that cleared up there was never any doubt he was going to be a top goalkeeper again. But for him to be able to manage it and get through that problem is great to see.
“I could definitely see him becoming Scotland number one again. When you are playing for Celtic,taking part in the Champions League and winning trophies then I don’t see why not.
“I saw him saying he has have played 100 games now [since returning from that career-threatening injury] is great. Maybe he didn’t even see that happening.
“He could have just chucked it with that knee problem. I had something similar myself and it is very painful and it’s difficult to keep going. But Craig managed to get a good surgeon who helped him out and that just shows you are never finished in football, especially a keeper of his ability.”
Out of the game, helping coach at Dumbarton for a while, Gordon’s return to European and international football has been impressive, according to Neilson.
“I spoke to him before he went to Celtic because I knew he had issues and he was looking for a club and he was one I would have been delighted to get in. But he had the opportunity to go there which I understood. It was Champions League football and it was a great decision, I’m delighted for him. He’s a guy who has had to work hard for it, he’s had to change his training routines, look after himself, do things right, and he’s getting the benefits of it.”
After a stunning first season at the Parkhead club, this term has been marred by one or two mistakes but he has coped with the pressure and the scrutiny, helping both club and country with crucial saves.
“That’s part of being a goalkeeper at Celtic, you lose a goal and you get criticised,” said the Hearts head coach, who is hoping his men can pile some pressure on him this weekend. “You’re expected to keep clean sheets. But Craig’s a good goalkeeper. In my opinion he is still world class and he’s one you never like seeing on the team lines against you.”
Playing in the defence ahead of Gordon when the young keeper first made the breakthrough at Tynecastle, the quality was as evident in training as it was in games.
“I don’t know what year it was he first came in as a young kid but he was still quite small. Then he grew three or four inches in a year and it took him time to grow into his body. But then there was a period when he was here where we couldn’t even score against him in training. He was phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal.
“We knew as a back four if we gave up any shots during a game he would save them and we went on a run of home games without losing a goal – that was down to him and he got his move [to Sunderland] for £9 million.”
Prior to their most recent game, a 3-0 defeat by St Johnstone, Hearts had again been in miserly form defensively, stringing together four clean sheets to help them to four consecutive wins.
Heading to Parkhead to face the team he believes will emerge from the fraught campaign chase as champions, Neilson knows it will be tough to return to winning ways, but says the team has a better chance than earlier in the season.
“It’s a difficult place to go and not many teams win there,” he said. “We got a decent result last time but we had to defend really well. We sat in and I expect this to be a different game. Our players have improved since then. We’re in a better position but that’s not to say we expect to turn up and get a result. We have to be 100 per cent and hope luck is on our side as well.”