Why Hearts goalkeeper Craig Gordon should be Scottish Premiership player of the year
From calling Tynecastle and the Stadium of Light home, the goalkeeper was at a halfway house under the Rock in Dumbarton. He hadn’t played a competitive game of football since a 2-2 draw against Bolton Wanderers in April 2012.
Injury had left his career on the precipice. At 30-years-old, the best Scottish goalkeeper of his generation reduced to TV work and helping out at part-time Dumbarton where the coaching team was former Hibs foe Ian Murray and current Easter Road boss Jack Ross.
A picture resurfaced last month during Scotland's World Cup qualifying double header of Gordon in a Dumbarton tracksuit top. It surprised many, unaware of his brief stop at the Sons. More than anything, it was a reminder of the fragility of a football career and the power of fighting back.
Back in June 2014, with Gordon having still not played a competitive match, Italian goalkeeping legend Gianluigi Buffon gave his one piece of advice for want-to-be goalkeepers. “Change. Don’t be a keeper. In the end, you need to be a little masochistic to be a goalkeeper.”
Here was Gordon, days away from signing for Celtic, ready to do all he could to play again. Almost the last throw of the dice. To dive about, to make saves, to put himself in the firing line.
By the end of the season, he had won the Premiership and League Cup. On top of that, he’d been awarded the Scottish Football Writers’ Player of the year award, nine years on from winning it for the first time with Hearts.
Now, on the verge of turning 39, he is in pole position to land the award for the third time.
There is ferocious competition. The Celtic trio of Kyogo Furuhashi, Jota and Callum McGregor have been excellent. Joe Aribo has been the consistent star for league leaders Rangers. Then there is Tony Watt. The Steelmen is the only player who can rival Gordon for being their team's most important individual.
Hearts sit third in the cinch Premiership. A large reason why Robbie Neilson's men sit third is because of their goalkeeper.
Throughout the campaign he has made stops which have kept the team in the game, prevented a heavier loss or won valuable points.
When the season ends, the shortlist for the veteran's save of the season isn't going to be so short.
Here we go…
There was the late spread to divert Callum McGregor's shot in the 2-1 win over Celtic in the opening game of the league season at Tynecastle. In the 2-0 success at Dundee United he showed his reflexes and athleticism. He denied Leon Balogun twice at point-blank range in a 1-1 draw at Ibrox. Up at Pittodrie he left Aberdeen striker Christian Ramirez bamboozled with a stunning diving stop. Gordon, himself, posted a picture of a brilliant fingertip stop in the home win over Dundee United with the caption ‘Not bad’.
Last month at Motherwell, he may well have eclipsed any stop since returning to Tynecastle with a stupendous double save which included a head-scratching forearm block from a Connor Shields shot from close range. On Sunday, we had the incredible triple save at Livingston, including one finger-tipped onto the post.
There have been more – and will be more.
No goalkeeper has made more saves in the Premiership than Gordon. No goalkeeper gets close to Gordon’s save percentage of 82.6 per cent.
When it comes to preventing goals, according to stat platform Wyscout, only Zander Clark has stopped more.
What is perhaps most remarkable is the fact that Gordon shows no sign of slowing down as if he holds some sort of age-slowing elixir in his possession. He has used both Buffon and NFL legend Tom Brady as inspiration for playing into his 40s.
"I've hardly missed a training session since I've been back at Hearts over a year and a half now," he said. “If I can stay injury free then why not?”
Compared to the £9million goalkeeper who left Hearts 14 years ago, this version of Gordon is better.
The reflexes, the agility, the jaw-dropping ability to stop a shot he has no right to stop is all still there from before. But he has added experience, he has a better command of his area when it comes to cross balls and he is a genuine leader.
His passing is something which has always been held against him. Yes, he isn't going to be used as an example as a goalkeeper with proficient use of the ball but for a club who have had such issues with their keepers using their hands properly, Gordon ticks all the boxes.
With Gordon between the sticks, whether that is for Hearts or Scotland, the team is in with a chance of winning. Single-handedly, he has shown the value of not just a competent goalkeeper, but a game-saving, match-winning one.
Look around the league, there hasn't been a player performing to such a high standard on such a consistent basis, while being so important to their team.
Craig Gordon is proving to be the most dominant rock in the country as he continues to makes up for lost time.