JUST a matter of weeks before he put pen to paper for Celtic, one flourish of Craig Gordon’s signature would have ended his playing career at a stroke and earned him a seven-figure insurance pay-out.
As he savours being named Scotland’s Player of the Year for 2014-15, the 32-year-old has revealed for the first time just how close he came to giving up on his often torturous battle to recover from the serious knee injury which sidelined him for the best part of three years.
To get the pay-out, I would have had to officially retire and not play any form of professional football. It would have gone to a settlement and it was pretty close to getting the go-aheadCraig Gordon
Gordon has been rewarded for his perseverance, spectacularly restoring his reputation as one of Scotland’s finest ever goalkeepers this season as his exceptional form has helped Celtic retain the Scottish Premiership title and win the League Cup.
He has also reclaimed his place in the Scotland squad and vindicated the belief of those closest to him, most notably his wife, Jennifer, that he could revive a career which he now hopes he can extend successfully until he is 40.
“There were quite a few people within the game who told me that it was perhaps time to give up,” said Gordon.
“I had the possibility of getting an insurance pay-out had the worst come to the worst and I kept putting that off trying to get back. It was getting very close to the time limit expiring on that and I had to make a decision on whether to continue trying to play or take the money and run.
“There wasn’t long left on the policy as it had been a two-year thing, so it was very close. The paperwork was all looked out, I had spoken to lawyers, and it was very far down the road to happening. So I turned my back on a very large sum of money to give it another go.
“Things could have gone wrong after that but I wanted to give myself that opportunity. In my old age, if I had taken the money and not given myself that final chance, I don’t think that would have sat well with me.
“To get the pay-out, I would have had to officially retire and not play any form of professional football. It would have gone to a settlement and it was pretty close to getting the go-ahead.
“My wife has been very supportive. She was the one who would tell me to keep going and keep trying. I couldn’t fault the support I’ve had from family and friends. Everyone has been right behind me.
“I hope I can play on for as long as possible now. I’ve seen what it looks like not playing. Although it was nice spending time at home with my two young girls, I want to play football for as long as I can. You’re a long time retired and I got a little glimpse of that during my time out. I know how lucky I am to be able to keep playing.
“I’d like to try keep playing until I’m 40, if my body holds up to it. I see Brad Friedel has just announced his retirement aged 43, so that gives me another ten and a half years! I could have a while yet.
“I don’t see me moving on from Celtic, certainly not at the moment. I’m very happy here and the manager has been great with me. We’ve got a really good relationship and I work very well with goalkeeping coach Stevie Woods as well. I’m looking forward to next season and giving the Champions League a go.”
In becoming the fifth Celtic player in the last seven years to win the Scottish Football Writers’ Association’s Player of the Year honour, and only the sixth in the 51-year history of the prize to claim it twice, Gordon has exceeded his own expectations in his first season with the Parkhead club.
He signed on initially as deputy to Fraser Forster, although in the knowledge the big English international was likely to be moving on. Since Forster’s £10 million sale to Southampton last August, Gordon has hardly looked back.
“I had loads of doubts when I first signed,” he admits. “Fraser was still here, I didn’t have a great deal of options regarding what I was going to do. I didn’t know if it was the right decision to come in at this level and fight for a first-team spot, or should I have dropped down a level or two, get first-team games and try to work my way back that way. There were a lot of doubts whether I had done the right thing coming here. Anything could have happened from that point. I could be sitting here at the end of the season having not played a game and not achieved anything. And then I would have been kicking myself for not going and getting games under my belt.
“I was ambitious enough, though, and wanted to go in as high as I could. I wanted to prove I could still play at this level and thankfully I’ve been able to do that.
“I didn’t really set myself a minimum target for the season. I wanted to play some games, but I didn’t have an exact figure in mind. But if Fraser had stayed here, maybe I would have just played in the cup matches or before or after a European game if they were resting players. I really didn’t know.
“I didn’t know the manager coming in, his philosophy or his thinking. So it was a step into the unknown. I just wanted to back myself as I had done that throughout my rehab to get back. I was confident I could get back to those levels, but I didn’t have an awful lot to back that up. I had to go out and prove it. Thankfully, I managed to do that.
“Fraser moving on was how I wanted it to pan out. That was the best-case scenario for me and it happened. I knew there was also a chance I could have suffered another injury, or broken down in pre-season, and they then brought another goalkeeper in or Lukasz Zaluska could have played well in the first game and kept his place. So there were loads of variables that could have happened. In my mindset, Fraser leaving was the way I wanted it to happen and that’s the way it ended up.”
Gordon has a few memorable moments to cherish from a season in which he feels he has been an even better goalkeeper than when he first won the Player of the Year award when at Hearts in 2006, forging the reputation which earned him a £9m move to Sunderland.
For Celtic, his amazing display in the 2-2 Europa League draw away to Salzburg and the stunning late double save in a 2-1 league win at St Johnstone in February stand out. But it is his return to the international fold, especially his first starting appearance for Scotland in almost four years against Northern Ireland at Hampden in March, which tops his list.
“I was walking out behind Darren Fletcher that night, who was captain for the first time in a while after his battle with illness,” recalls Gordon. “I tapped him on the shoulder and said ‘we’ve not done this for a while’. It was like going back to the old days. That was a nice moment to share with him. We haven’t spoken about our individual circumstances at great length, but there’s a shared understanding there.
“We’ve both been down a similar path and missed about 300 games and a lot of international caps between us. But these things happen to footballers everywhere. It’s about how you react to that and whether you have the strength to come back. Darren has done fantastically well to do that.
“I’m a different goalkeeper now to when I was Player of the Year the first time. I was 24 when I won it the last time, so there’s a lot changed within my game. I’ve changed technically a few things that have helped me to cope with the injury and, overall, it’s improved my goalkeeping in general.
“Coming to Celtic, there’s been a different style of play, having to play out from the back, having a higher line and having to be a sweeper at times, is something I hadn’t done too much of at my previous clubs. That’s been a change. Now having experienced all those different styles of play, I think I’m better now than when I won the award before.
“The Salzburg and St Johnstone games stand out for me with Celtic so far. The Salzburg game set us up to get through the group stage in the Europa League, while the saves so late at St Johnstone felt important because the league was still quite tight with Aberdeen at that stage.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Gordon, of course, with his red card in the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Inverness at Hampden a low point. After all he has been through, however, a sense of perspective is easy for him to find.
“We were still winning 1-0 when I went off, so I don’t know what happened after that,” he smiles. “It was nothing to do with me. Seriously, though, these things happen. It was disappointing. On that day we didn’t play particularly well, even in the first half.
“It’s only the second time I’ve been sent off and only the third or fourth penalty I’ve conceded in my career. You hope these things won’t happen in big games, but I remember Jens Lehmann being sent off in the Champions League final for something similar.
“You just have to take it on the chin and try to put it out of your mind. I’ve probably become better at doing that with experience. It helps you to do that, having come back from two years out.”