Alan Pattullo: Craig Gordon fighting for his Celtic place

Celtic's Craig Gordon made a vital penalty save in Israel. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
Celtic's Craig Gordon made a vital penalty save in Israel. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
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Craig Gordon should be anticipating a crowning moment to date as a player as he prepares to learn Celtic’s opponents in the group stage of the Champions League.

Make no mistake about it, this opportunity to perform at club football’s elite level has been hard earned by Gordon in particular. He missed out with Hearts at the third qualifying stage in 2006-07.

Gordon has also fallen at the play-off round twice with Celtic since signing in the summer of 2014 after overcoming a serious, career-threatening knee injury.

The prospect of a Champions League debut is not the only imminent test that should be stirring his competitive juices. There is the realistic possibility he could seize back possession of the Scotland No 1 shirt ahead of next Sunday’s World Cup qualifier away to Malta.

With Allan McGregor currently out of the equation, Gordon is vying with David Marshall for the starter slot. To those looking on from afar, it would appear Gordon’s career is in clover.

So why does it feel as if the 33-year-old is at some kind of crossroads? Why does it feel as if he is in the midst of a confidence-sapping mini-crisis?

This is in spite of the fact he was strong-handed enough to stop Maharan Radi’s penalty on Tuesday night’s play-off round clash with Hapoel Beer-Sheva. That was once one of the few criticisms that could be aimed at Gordon: ‘he doesn’t save enough penalties’. Well, he did on Wednesday. And it was a vital stop.

The save contributed significantly to Celtic’s 5-4 aggregate victory, a win that has netted the club a reported £25 million windfall. He should have been hailed the hero of the hour, or one of them at least.

And yet there was the feeling Gordon needed to be defended. This was Scotland manager Gordon Strachan’s instinct afterwards in his role as a BT Sports pundit.

After hearing Chris Sutton, the match summariser, provide some typically trenchant observations about Gordon’s performance, specifically his part in Hapoel’s second goal, shortly after half-time, Strachan was quick to absolve the keeper of all blame.

The goal in question was the result of a calamitous collision with a team-mate, Saidy Janko. Sutton’s point was that Gordon needed to be stronger. Some even pointed the finger at the keeper for his part in Hapoel’s opener, when he was beaten low to his left by Ben Sahar’s header. Gordon wasn’t having any of it, understandably. He glared as the reporter probed him about Hapoel’s second goal, before suggesting the fault lay with Janko, who had bumped into him.

It was notable that Scott Brown, the Celtic skipper, felt the need, unprompted, to back Gordon afterwards, applauding him for showing why “he is worth his place in the team”. It is clear that even his teammates realise there is some heat being placed on Gordon, who picked up the Scottish Football Writers’ Association player of the year award little more than 15 months ago. He was the runaway winner.

As recently as March he celebrated his 100th appearance since his comeback after two years out with a clean-sheet against Denmark. It felt like a rubber stamp had been supplied to his comeback.

But as the Joe Hart saga at Manchester City proves, reputations and previous deeds can count for nothing if an incoming manager has a seemingly preferred candidate in mind.

For Claudio Bravo, Pep Guardiola’s choice as No 1 at Manchester City, read Dorus de Vries, the goalkeeper whose arrival earlier at Celtic this month was the signal for some to question Gordon’s long-term future at the club. There are other similarities between the two situations too: Hart is reportedly being ditched because he is unreliable with the ball at his feet, which is also why some believe Gordon is being put under pressure by De Vries, who was on the substitutes’ bench in Israel.

Indeed, Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers flagged up De Vries’ talents on this front, which sounded somewhat ominous for Gordon. The manager stressed earlier this month how important it is for a goalkeeper to be able to distribute the ball. De Vries, he added, “is as good as I’ve seen at that in all my travels”.

So it is natural that, come Saturday, all eyes will be on the name at the top of the teamsheet before Celtic’s clash with Aberdeen. De Vries, having been included in the squad in Beersheba, is clearly now over an ankle injury that threatened his move from Nottingham Forest.

Managers don’t win prizes for being loyal to players so while it would seem harsh if Gordon made way for De Vries, some Celtic fans are already willing this change. With tougher, even higher-profile tests to come, Rodgers might feel he has little option but to try out something new.

But if there’s one thing we know about Gordon, it’s that he is capable of overcoming personal challenges.

After such a long wait and having done his bit to make it happen, Gordon will be extra determined to make sure this chance to play Champions League football doesn’t slip from his grasp.