Hearts' Craig Gordon: Berti Vogts' faith, Craig Levein's Broons quip and Steve Clarke's Scotland benefit, 17 years later
There were many who wanted it terminated before the clash in Chisinau in 2004, with the Hearts goalkeeper – then just 21 – having been blamed in some quarters for Norway’s winning goal a few days earlier in what was only his fourth cap (he now has 62). That he is back in place as Scotland’s number one for this Friday’s return to the Moldovan capital, where Steve Clarke’s side can secure a World Cup finals play-off place, is nothing short of remarkable.
Berti Vogts is a somewhat discredited figure in terms of Scottish football, but his patience in the case of Gordon, as well as his determination to blood outfield youngsters such as James McFadden and Darren Fletcher, is something for which he must be commended. In a prescient piece, The Scotsman’s chief football writer Glenn Gibbons made this point in a column in these very pages.
A few days after the humiliating 1-1 draw in Chisinau, which all but ended Scotland’s hopes of reaching the World Cup in Germany 2006 and proved the manager's last stand, Gibbons wrote that “whatever fate awaits Vogts, however disapprovingly posterity may view his tenure (and the portents are not encouraging), Craig Gordon at least will have good reason to recall his experience under the German with a measure of gratitude”.
Scotland are continuing to reap the benefits. If he plays in the next two fixtures against Moldova and Denmark, Gordon will displace Steven Pressley as Hearts’ most capped Scotland player.
It’s testimony to the 39-year-old's strength of character as well as unquestionable goalkeeping talent. In 2013 the prospect of another game of senior football, never mind one at international level, seemed remote. Craig Levein, speaking at the launch of John Robertson’s new autobiography Robbo, recalled contacting the 'keeper about the possibility of making a return to Hearts.
Levein had himself returned to Tynecastle as part of the Ann Budge revolution and wanted Gordon to join the club’s post-administration revival.
His progress had halted to the extent that he was becoming a forgotten figure. He had pulled on a surgical gown more often than a pair of gloves for Sunderland as he battled a succession of injuries, from arm breaks to recurring patella tendon problems. Gordon's reply to Levein was stark. It looked like it was all over. There would be no 50th cap for Scotland or career second act at Celtic, where he won every major honour in Scotland. There would be no belated return to Hearts, who he has helped back into the top flight and to their current position of third in the Premiership.
“When I was speaking to him he was saying: ‘I think it’s game, set and match, I think I’m finished, basically,’” recalled Levein.
“So to come back and do what he has done is incredible – and the story runs on. He took a massive wage cut to come to Hearts and he’s just a brilliant boy. He has this really laid-back demeanour on the field and he is exactly the same way off it.
“I don’t think I have ever seen him riled or upset about anything, even when he was a kid. We had Antti Niemi and Craig came through the ranks and one summer he shot up five or six inches, a bit like Hen Broon!”
He is mercifully more coordinated than the hapless, awkward Broons character and shone from an early age at Hearts, when Levein was in his first spell as manager.
“When he first started training with the first team I had Antti Niemi and I remember watching a six-a-side game one day at training,” Levein, now club advisor at Brechin City, recalls. "The games were six minutes long and there was one where it was 0-0 and it went from the sublime to the ridiculous with the saves that he and Antti were pulling off. It was a privilege to have the two of them.
“We put Craig out on loan to Cowdenbeath for a year because I just felt he was too young and we brought in Tepi Moilanen," adds Levein. "But when he came back, he’s the only young player I have put in the team who stayed in once he got his chance to play, which is unusual. Normally they play 10-15 games and you have to take them out again.”
Gordon’s succession of injury problems meant Levein was only able to call on him on two occasions as Scotland manager although Allan McGregor’s form ensured that whatever struggles he endured in this post could not be pinned on a weak link in goal.
“I could honestly say Allan McGregor never let Scotland down at that time, he was great,” he says. “Although it would have been great to have had the two of them.”
Levein must regard Clarke with a degree of envy. As well as ending Scotland’s major finals hex, the current manager is well positioned to qualify for another one.
“That would be nice, eh?” says Levein. “There’s something stirring, isn’t there. Listen, I’m always hopeful. It was brilliant in the summer when we had those games to look forward to.
“And one of the things that everybody had to deal with before Steve was no-one had experience of success, had had the opportunity to go to a major tournament.
“For me it’s about learning, no matter how old you are. And once you have been to a tournament, I am sure there are so many things Steve, his backroom staff and the players have learned they can put to good use - if they can get back quickly when we have still got the same nucleus of players.”