Craig Gordon explains how his Hearts gamble has paid off
Risk and reward don’t always marry in football. Craig Gordon gambled when rejoining Hearts two years ago, believing that the club’s plan would come together perfectly. He wasn't wrong.
Gordon is the Scottish Football Writers’ Player of the Year for 2021/22 having captained his team back into European competition, reached the Scottish Cup final and reclaimed his international place. He is the first man to win the award three times.
You won’t find him perched on a Riccarton chair declaring “I love it when a plan comes together” through a cigar. Colonel Hannibal Smith and his A-Team would nonetheless be chuffed with Gordon and Hearts’ execution of this particular project.
In two seasons, they have climbed out of the Championship and finished third in the Premiership as a newly-promoted side. Gordon left Celtic and returned to his formative club anticipating a rejuvenation under manager Robbie Neilson. Even he couldn’t have expected to carry it all off so seamlessly.
“The motivation was to come back and show everybody I could still do it. I had spent a year on the bench [at Celtic], I didn't particularly enjoy it and wanted to finish my career playing games,” explained the 39-year-old goalkeeper.
"You never know if you will get the chance to come back here. Somebody could have been in possession of the jersey and doing well. It just so happened I was coming out of contract so it was a great opportunity for me to come back and get playing.
“At the back of my mind, what I wanted to do was get back playing for Scotland and put pressure on that No.1 position, also get promoted and try to get Hearts into Europe. That was everything that was discussed when I came back. That was the plan.
“Things don't always go to plan but that was the best-case scenario we wanted. It has worked out very well. I feel very much at home here at Hearts. That contributes to the performances, the feeling I get around here.
“I'm backed by players and management and it feels good being here. It's nice to be loved by the fans and have that respect, knowing they will be behind you no matter what.”
Realism is never far when in conversation with Gordon. He knew some would question his return to Gorgie and whether he might taint the legacy left from 2007.
“It was always going to be difficult. There were probably a few fans who thought I was a bit old to come back and might not make the same impact as first time round,” he stated. “I still had to come and prove people wrong by performing well. That's what drives me to come back again and prove I can still play. I've got a few more years left.”
Neilson’s influence in overseeing this plan should not be underestimated. He may well deserve a manager of the year award himself, not least for the speedy transformation in atmosphere just 13 months since some fans called for his sacking. “He has done a great job,” acknowledged Gordon.
“Everything he spoke about, what he was looking to do and take the club forward, the vast majority of everything he wanted to do has come off. He has been well supported by those within the club.
“He knew it would be a difficult task and might take time but he's done it very quickly. He has put a real good team on the park, created a great atmosphere and we've got a great chance towards the end of this season.”
A former defender, Neilson appreciates the value of a quality goalkeeper as much as anyone. Gordon feels it was difficult to earn recognition in his position in the past.
“Growing up through boys’ club football, you get left to your own devices,” he explained. “It was up to the individual to develop themselves and figure it out – more so than if you were an outfield player. It is getting better all the time.
“The art of goalkeeping is much more part of the team now because of what we are asked to do, especially with the ball at our feet. We are a much more integrated part of the team. Hopefully, mindsets are changing towards that.
“I saw an article recently about not voting for a goalkeeper to win an award because they are a goalkeeper. It was an ex-Hibs player, but I understand that thinking. I hope it’s changing. Goalkeepers are much more part of the team. Everybody needs to realise that.
“In terms of goalkeepers finishing their careers and going into coaching and management, there are very few. With the way the game is changing, hopefully we can change that viewpoint.
“Goalkeepers can maybe see things in a different light and add to the team, not only on the pitch, but as coaches and backroom staff. We do have a unique insight and hopefully it can be used more. I would like to shine a light on that and show that goalkeepers are important.”
Winning Player of the Year from the Scottish media three times isn’t a bad way to highlight your importance. The 2022 trophy will join the 2015 and 2006 versions in Gordon’s home trophy cabinet. “I am immensely proud. I can’t quite believe that I’ve managed to win this award three times,” admitted Gordon.
“It’s not something that you set out to do at the start of your career, but certainly the closer I get to the end and the more I look at what I am going to leave behind in terms of the records that I have managed to gain, it is an incredible achievement.
“You go along taking one game at a time and trying your best. I am so happy to have won this again. I have won it every eight years or so – so I might get it again in 2030.”