Hearts' Craig Gordon: I never considered quitting - football has a way of coming back around
As the Hearts goalkeeper prepares for an extended spell back in the Scotland team ahead of a World Cup qualifying triple-header, it is not surprising to discover he has played against Denmark, Austria and even Moldova – way back in 2004 – before.
There is still something the 38-year-old wishes to experience for the first time, however. He is desperate to play a part in a major finals rather than perform the role of very dependable back-up, which was his fate during Euro 2020 this summer. He can afford to be philosophical about that experience now he is back in the box seat.
“I always wanted to be involved to try and be part of a team that qualified for a championships,” he says. “I managed to get myself back and in the squad. I was one of the top three goalkeepers to be picked to go and represent Scotland at the Euros.
“I would have loved to have played but at the same time there have been some excellent goalkeepers here in the last 15 years who have been competing against each other. It was fantastic for me to get back to that level. There was a day when I thought I would not get one more Scotland cap."
There was some debate over whether he might supplant David Marshall as No. 1 when it really mattered. In the end Steve Clarke proved loyal to the man whose penalty save proved so pivotal in getting to Euro 2020.
If a little frustrated, Gordon understood. He and Marshall have both endured long spells of being out of favour and both know not to throw their toys – or should that be gloves – out of the pram.
The analogy is fitting in the case of Gordon, whose partner Summer gave birth to a son, Ace, in April. All being well, he will see his daddy play for Scotland for the first time against Moldova this weekend at Hampden. Gordon last came up against this set of opponents in Berti Vogts’ last match in charge 17 years ago.
This detail alone illustrates just how long the Hearts goalkeeper has been involved with Scotland. His loyalty to the cause has been rewarded again as he settles back into an old routine. He will make only his third competitive start in nearly three years against Denmark tomorrow night.
He says he never considered quitting, not even at times – mainly latterly at Celtic – when he wondered where his next club appearance, never mind international cap, was coming from. Then there were the long spells out through injury.
“You have to keep working hard,” he says. “Football has a funny way of coming back round again and you get another opportunity at some point and you have to be there and ready and able to take it.”
Gordon is more than ready. There’s an argument he is playing as well as ever. Marshall is suddenly yesterday’s hero after slipping down the pecking order at Wayne Rooney’s Derby County. The stars have aligned for Gordon again – and not just at international level. He can rarely have experienced a week like the current one.
The club he supported as a boy and has returned to play for have just become officially fan-owned while sitting joint top of the league. Meanwhile, he is set to win his 58th cap against Denmark – he is only nine appearances away from displacing Willie Miller in the all-time top ten of Scotland international appearances.
Nobody would bet against this phenomenal athlete scratching that itch and playing for Scotland at the World Cup finals in Qatar next winter, just weeks before he hits 40.
“Don’t mention that 4-0 just yet, bit to go before that!” he says. In a recent interview with The Scotsman, former Hibs goalkeeper John Burridge claimed he was far better at 40 than he had been at 20.
Gordon has just been described as “world class” by opposition manager Tam Courts following his most recent club performance in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Dundee United at Tannadice. How does the Craig Gordon of today compare to the 21-year-old who made his international debut against Trinidad & Tobago at Easter Road?
“Let’s say I am probably a little bit different from that,” he says. “My experience of the game, my reading of the game is probably a bit better.
“There might be some aspects which have gone down a little bit. But I certainly feel as if I more than make up for that in other areas. Every player evolves throughout their career and learns more as they go along. I feel in a good place.”
This is just as well because Denmark have some explosive finishers primed to do their best to nix Gordon and Scotland’s dream of reaching a second successive finals. Mikkel Damsgaard is one. The Sampdoria forward crashed a free-kick into the net to equalise for his side against England at their epic Euro 2020 semi-final clash last month.
Scotland, meanwhile, look light in key positions though Gordon hasn’t let the recent spate of call-offs, with Covid-19 again affecting Scotland’s plans, put him off his food. "Sitting at breakfast, I looked around the room and there were quality players everywhere,” he says.
"I look at the squad and every member of it is capable of playing in these games.” Scotland will have to find a way past Leicester City's Kasper Schmeichel if they are to gain the win that would truly ignite their qualifying campaign.
Gordon tips his cap to his opposite number, who he says is “an inspiration” for bouncing back after struggling to make the breakthrough at Manchester City, when he spent time on loan at Falkirk. It would be no surprise to find Schmeichel felt the same way about Gordon.