THE flag unfurling ceremony at Celtic Park this afternoon will mark the passing of a year in which Craig Gordon has been raised to the status of standard bearer by supporters of the Scottish champions. The keeper remembers their opinion of him being altogether different 12 months ago.
The new, improved terms the 32-year-old agreed this week in signing up until 2018 caps the greatest goalkeeping comeback since Melchester Rovers brought Bob Wilson out of retirement in his 40s. Last summer Gordon didn’t just have to prove to everyone, including “family and friends”, that years sidelined with knee problems hadn’t wrecked his professional career. At that time he was also “pretty sure most of the Celtic fans weren’t overly enamoured” by his signing for reasons distinct from his physical condition.
An anti-Gordon agenda was promoted by certain online frothers because, when at Hearts, the keeper had gone up for a last-minute corner against Celtic with his team trailing by a goal in a game that was of little consequence to the Tynecastle team but meant everything to a side vying with Rangers for the title. The goalkeeper’s ‘crime’ was that, faced with a similar scenario months earlier at Ibrox, he remained in his own goalmouth.
Even before the first competitive encounter of last season one Celtic supporter left Gordon in no doubt that perceived unfairness rankled. “When I travelled with the team to the first game in Europe away in Iceland, I stepped off the bus and I got a bit of stick for coming up for that corner,” explained Gordon. “It was a nice welcome to the club but the same guy then asked for my strip at the end of the season so I must have turned him round a little bit. I can’t remember the exact words he said in Iceland but I know that was a bee in the bonnet of many Celtic fans for a while. But I gave the guy my shirt – I don’t hold a grudge.
“It was all motivation for me. I used it to my advantage. That is what you have got to do. If you let it bother you then you can go the other way and perform worse. It was extra motivation to go out and prove everyone wrong and prove I can still do what I want to – and play at that level. As time went on, the fans got behind me and the team and supported me really well last season. Once the chance came to extend the contract, I was always going to take it.”
A year ago there were no verbal promises from Celtic that, having signed for relatively modest remuneration as he sought to demonstrate he could be the Gordon of old, he would be placed on a salary more befitting his talents and his importance. He wasn’t thinking he was taking a financial hit when he inked his original deal.
“That was the chance I took to get back into football. It was not just wages. If I had not played again I would probably have got a reasonable insurance pay-out. It was a question of: ‘do I have an opportunity to go and play games to then get a better contract, or go and play football again?’ It was not a money decision at all, it was an opportunity to play at the highest level possible.”
Gordon has shown that, and then some, with his form last season arguably as good as he had produced in his career as he helped the club claim the title and League Cup and in the process bagged himself the Scottish football writers’ player of the year accolade.
“There have been times when I have played well at both Hearts and Sunderland but certainly last season was a good run. There were a lot of clean sheets and I was happy with the way I was performing. Whether it was the best ever I don’t know, it is hard to say, but I felt good and able to perform week in, week out at my best. Staying healthy and having no major problems was a big plus and a big factor in stringing a run of games together to improve and feel at home out on the pitch.”
As Celtic celebrate last year’s championship by raising their banner high before hosting Ross County in their Premiership opener at lunchtime today, Gordon will be looking forward – to a certain trip to Azerbaijan, with Celtic taking a 1-0 lead to the country for Wednesday’s deciding leg of their third round Champions League qualifier against Qarabag.
“I want to play at the highest level I possibly can and so help the team to qualify for the Champions League. Qarabag showed at Celtic Park that they are technically a very good side, they kept the ball well. We’re in for a right test when we go across there. I’d like to play the best I can in the best competitions and make sure that I put myself in the shop window for trying to get back in the Scotland team and qualifying for the European Championships.”