Craig Gordon has made quite an impression since returning to Hearts nine months ago. This weekend will be the goalkeeper’s 200th appearance for the club and, at 38, he seems to defy the ageing process as much as opposition strikers.
His reactions in the six-yard box remain sprightly and instinctive, as displayed in the second half of Saturday’s 2-1 win against Dundee. It encourages his belief that he can be part of Scotland’s squad at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar just weeks shy of his 40th birthday.
His reactions to media questions aren’t bad either. Being in a good place mentally and physically helps on all fronts. Last year’s Covid lockdown allowed Gordon time to work intensely on specialised fitness drills and the benefits are now obvious.
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Umpteen times in his 24 club appearances this season have we seen those elongated arms and legs divert a netbound shot. The reactionary save from Kevin Nisbet’s header against Hibs in the Scottish Cup semi-final is ingrained in the mind as much for that GIF of Gordon laughing afterwards.
There is still much to smile about. He is Hearts’ established No.1 again and nearing a league title at a club 15 points clear atop the Championship table. A Scotland recall came last autumn, fully justifying Gordon’s decision to leave Celtic for a second spell in Gorgie.
“That’s everything I set out to do coming back here. I’ve managed to get the captain’s armband a few times as well,” he points out in an exclusive Evening News interview. “I did it on Saturday and it would have been great to hear the noise coming out with Tynecastle full of fans and the music playing – like days gone by when I did it.
“Everything I aimed for at the start of the season is going well, but I’m not the type of person to be satisfied with that. I want to keep pushing and be ready for the Scotland games coming up this month. I want to be in that squad and perform well.
“You just never know the injury situation or who is going to be available come the summer. I want to give myself the best possible chance to be involved.”
David Marshall is first-choice goalkeeper under Scotland coach Steve Clarke and managed a fairly important save of his own in Belgrade last November. However, he is nursing a back injury which precluded him from Derby County’s last two matches.
Experience has taught Gordon that football can change in an instant. He is determined to be ready for club and country this month, this summer and for quite some time thereafter.
“It’s not that far away for the World Cup after the Euros. I want to continue playing and hopefully still be involved at international level for a few years. I’m well aware that’s going to take an awful lot of work on my part to keep in shape and producing performances here at Hearts.”
Evidence to date suggests he is motoring along nicely. Should Scotland require a replacement for Marshall for upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Austria, Israel and the Faroe Islands, few candidates are in better form.
Two double saves at the weekend proved Gordon is at the top of his game. After denying Jason Cummings and Osman Sow with his hands, Gordon used both legs moments later to stop certain goals from Sow and Jonathan Afolabi with Hearts clinging to a 2-1 advantage.
“We got a bit nervous and should have seen the game out better,” he admits. “It’s something we need to learn because we were playing so well. We were really in control but we let them back into the game, which is a bit disappointing.
“I was just trying to keep the lead in tact as we came under more pressure. The first one from Jason Cummings, he hit it across me and got a lot of movement on the ball.
“I managed to block it. I was trying to keep it closer but it rebounded out from me and I had to make a second effort to get it. I’ve still got enough reactions to get back up and get in the way of that one.
“Then I used my legs to stop the next two. The first one was Osman Sow from the angle. I got my right leg to that one and got back up. Afolabi followed up and I managed to save that with my left foot. That’s what they’re there for. However I stop the ball is good enough for me.”
No creaking limbs
His limbs aren’t creaking yet and the secret behind that is a bespoke training programme he undertook last spring. He knew the merits of hitting the ground running at Hearts.
“The break over lockdown was probably the best thing that could have happened for me. I was able to just work on myself, my own body, and get myself in the best possible shape to come back here,” says Gordon.
“I've really felt the benefit of that after six years of playing every three days at Celtic, plus international games. It’s a hard slog. It’s really difficult to keep that up for that length of time.
“I’ve come here to less league games but I needed that period of time to work on my fitness. I wanted to work on my sharpness and become stronger. Playing every three days, you don’t get time to really test your body and then get that soreness back out of it in time for a game.
“You are just ticking over. During lockdown, I could really tire myself out and do the best possible training sessions for my body at this stage of my career. It was helpful to have that without playing games.”