Craig Gordon’s character is tough and impregnable after a difficult two years. Heading into one of the most exciting periods of his career, he knows he has the mental strength to cope.
Scotland’s European Championship qualifier against Republic of Ireland tomorrow precedes a quick break before Gordon tackles the treacherous Champions League qualifiers with Celtic. It’s times like these he fought back from career-threatening injuries for.
The tenacity shown to overcome two years of persistent knee problems leaves Gordon fearing nothing. The Edinburgh-born goalkeeper is back at the top of club football with Premiership champions Celtic and is again challenging for the No.1 position in the national team. It is a far cry from his time out of the game after injury destroyed his Sunderland career. He is expected to be second in command tomorrow night, with David Marshall in goal for Scotland in the Aviva Stadium, but Gordon knows he is back in business both mentally and physically.
He will need every ounce of psychological spirit over the coming weeks as one season virtually morphs into the next. Gordon will get a few days off between returning from Dublin with Scotland and reporting back to Lennoxtown for the start of pre-season training. Then come three Champions League qualifying rounds if Celtic are to reach the lucrative group stage. He is 32 now and needs to adapt his training schedule at times, but this is precisely why he fought so hard to save his career during those two years.
The high-octane atmosphere in the Aviva Stadium and the intensity of Champions League qualifiers remind him of what football means. Scotland are serious contenders for a place at next summer’s European Championship in France and Gordon finds himself hyped up once more.
“It could well be the most exciting time. I’ve got a lot to look forward to, both with the national team and with Celtic,” he said. “It’s going to be a big challenge to try and get to the Champions League group stages with Celtic. That’s a very difficult thing to do. Three qualifying rounds are a hard thing to come through but we’ll prepare properly.
“This is probably not a bad thing for me. It keeps my match sharpness up. There’s only going to be a couple of weeks before I’m back in training. There’s not really any time to lose any fitness or sharpness. I’ll be straight back into it and the body is feeling good. I’m quite happy to continue. I won’t get much of a break. It’ll be four or five days and then I’ll be back in looking to start the next campaign. It just seems that they’re all going to roll into one.”
Asked if he always believed he would return to the top, he replied: “Not always. I wanted to and I tried desperately to do that. I knew there was a possibility that it might not happen, for many reasons. I don’t think you can ever take that for granted. You set that kind of goal and that was what I wanted to do but there were a lot of pitfalls which could’ve arose.
“So far, I’ve managed to play a lot of games and I’ve put myself in a position where I’m in contention to start for Scotland again. It’s something that I probably didn’t think would come around so quickly. I went straight back in [at Celtic last summer] and got playing a lot of games very quickly. I think that probably helped as well.
“There wasn’t too much training in between, it was just playing the games and getting that match sharpness back. Once I did that I was confident I was playing well. I felt I could put myself in a position whereby, when the internationals came round, I had a chance. I think the injuries did make me stronger. I can put things in perspective a lot easier now. I’m probably a lot more relaxed than what I was before. That can help you out on the pitch as well. It probably has made me better in a lot of senses.”
Gordon played the second half of Friday’s friendly win over Qatar at Easter Road as Scotland prepared for Dublin. He took over from Marshall and helped secure a clean sheet in a game which, in truth, lacked much of the edge that will be evident tomorrow. Martin O’Neill’s teams are renowned for passion and fighting spirit and the Republic, realistically, can’t afford to lose after defeat by Scotland in November.
“It’s going to be competitive. We’re expecting a tough game and we’ve been training really hard,” said Gordon. “It showed on Friday that we’ve working on trying to press the ball and play high-energy football. That’s what we’ll need and we put it into practice. I’m sure the manager will be very happy with the effort he got from everyone.
“I thought we started the game really well, putting Qatar under a lot of pressure, winning the ball in good areas. We created a few chances and maybe could’ve taken a few more of them. We hit the post but overall it was a good run-out. The boys who played first half hadn’t played much football in the last month, so that’s what the manager was looking for.
“There were some good challenges going in but I thought we dealt with it pretty well. It was a physical test because they had some big boys up front. That’s a similar type of thing to what we might come up against Ireland. From that point of view, it was a good workout. I was quite happy with what I had to do. That’s all I can do to keep knocking at the door and try to play in some of the big games. It’s great to get back to this level and try to push for a start in the next game.”
So what are the chances of Gordon achieving both his aims – helping Celtic into the Champions League groups and Scotland to Euro 2016. “That would be a nice double, wouldn’t it? Don’t know what odds you would get on that. It would certainly be the ideal scenario for me. There’s an awful lot of hard work to do in both camps to ensure that happens. I’m excited to be part of it on both fronts and see how far we can go.”