Craig Gordon and Allan McGregor should be too old for auditions. The credibility of both as top-class international goalkeepers is well established.
Yet ahead of Scotland’s inaugural Uefa Nations League campaign on a road which Alex McLeish hopes can lead to the Euro 2020 finals, they are battling for first-pick status in the manager’s eyes.
Right now, he can’t make up his mind, prompting him to give his Old Firm double act a game each in this current round of internationals. Gordon was certainly handed the short straw last night.
Never before in a Scotland career stretching back 14 years had the 35-year-old Celtic man conceded more than three goals in his country’s colours. Against a Belgian side currently second in the Fifa world rankings, which would be regarded as the more daunting of the two assignments facing Scotland in this month’s Hampden double-header, he endured a torrid night.
From that perspective, Gordon could initially consider his selection as providing a greater opportunity to showcase his abilities than McGregor might encounter against Albania on Monday when it will be hoped there will be less for Scotland’s goalkeeper to deal with.
But while McLeish appeared genuinely indecisive when discussing the issue on Thursday, the choice of McGregor for the first competitive international of his second period as manager might be interpreted by some that the 36-year-old Rangers man is in pole position for the rest of the Nations League campaign.
All Gordon could do last night was try to ensure he completed the 90 minutes as solidly as possible but that proved a forlorn hope. He made a positive enough start, getting down to his left to confidently gather a well-struck free-kick by Dries Mertens after only six minutes.
Regardless of reputation, however, no goalkeeper is immune to the occasional foul-up as Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois, all £36 million worth of him, proved when he allowed a speculative John McGinn shot to slip through his legs. Fortunately for the Real Madrid man, he was able to retrieve the ball before it could trickle over the line.
Gordon, sadly, was unable to prevent his first false step of the evening being punished. He wasn’t wholly to blame for the mix-up which led to Romelu Lukaku’s 28th-minute breakthrough, but his throw to McGinn was rushed and ultimately ill-advised. The Aston Villa midfielder’s poor first touch allowed him to be caught in possession by Mousa Dembele, whose pass to Thorgan Hazard left the home defence exposed as he laid on a simple close-range finish for Lukaku.
Gordon’s hopes of a 23rd clean sheet for Scotland as he earned his 53rd cap had evaporated and he was fortunate not to concede a penalty 11 minutes later when he clattered Timothy Castagne but remarkably escaped censure from the Italian referee.
There was a better moment for Gordon on the stroke of half-time when he made a tremendous save to keep out an Eden Hazard header but it was a thunderous strike by the brilliant Chelsea man which set the tone for the Scots’ miserable second half.
Hazard’s shot only 49 seconds after the restart flew directly above Gordon into the roof of the net but such was the pace on the ball, criticism of the keeper would be harsh. He could certainly do little to prevent Michy Batshuayi’s quickfire double which were spawned by errors by Charlie Mulgrew and Ryan Jack respectively.
McGregor, looking on from the substitutes’ bench, must have felt a combination of sympathy for his old rival and relief that he was not in the firing line of a slick and incisive Belgian side.
It is perhaps little wonder that McLeish is finding it difficult to determine whether Gordon or McGregor should be his first-choice keeper for the competitive fixtures which lie ahead.
He has past experience of the outstanding quality of both men. During McLeish’s ten games in charge of Scotland during his first spell in charge in 2007, Gordon played in nine of them and distinguished himself regularly in a squad which came so close to reaching the Euro 2008 finals.
McGregor was McLeish’s back-up goalkeeper when he was Rangers manager, playing understudy to Stefan Klos. But it was McLeish who handed McGregor his Scotland debut, in a 1-0 win away to Austria. That was the first of 14 clean sheets McGregor has recorded in 38 appearances for his country.
McGregor’s longest spell as undisputed No 1 for Scotland came in Craig Levein’s tenure, the now Hearts manager recalling him following a near 18-month exile which was the consequence of his involvement in the “Boozegate” controversy of 2009.
But he has not played in a competitive fixture for Scotland for almost three years, since the end of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. He was dislodged as No 1 by David Marshall, who played in the first three games of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, before Gordon Strachan then turned again to Gordon for the remaining seven matches.
It will be Gordon’s turn to spectate on Monday night, McGregor’s chance to impress in a Scotland side desperately in need of some stability after five friendly matches in which McLeish used 40 players. Regardless of who plays in goal, Scotland’s problems lie in other areas of the pitch.