Friday’s trip to Moldova and Monday's final Group F qualifier against Denmark at Hampden Park will decide if a play-off place is secured – and whether Scotland can achieve seeded status. Tension is growing thicker than the horse hair on a supporter’s sporran.
For Hearts goalkeeper Craig Gordon, this international fortnight carries added personal significance. He will become the most capped Tynecastle player in history if, as expected, he is selected for both Scotland ties. It is quite the honour when you analyse it.
Gordon currently holds 62 caps, exactly half of which have been accumulated during his two spells in Gorgie. Two more will take him to 33 international appearances as a Hearts player and surpass the current record held by his former team-mate Steven Pressley.
On September 6, 2006, Pressley broke the legendary Bobby Walker’s total of 29 caps with Hearts when he took the field for Scotland against Lithuania. It was a record which had stood for 91 years. Pressley went on to hit 32 caps before leaving Edinburgh for Celtic Park.
Gordon eclipsing both men would seem rather appropriate. He is already a legendary figure down Tynecastle way and continues to perform at peak levels with his 39th birthday just a few weeks away.
“I think it’s fitting for Craig,” said Robbie Neilson, the Hearts manager. “Big Steven was a brilliant servant here. To get 32 caps with a team outwith Celtic and Rangers is some achievement. For Craig to hit 33 and counting would be fitting. It’s one top player taking over from another.”
It could be argued that Gordon breaking Pressley’s record would be an even more remarkable achievement given he lost two years of his career to injury. He also spent another on the bench at Celtic under Brendan Rodgers. The resilience to battle back to the top is one of many attributes setting him apart.
“Craig has had knee problems in his career and the biggest thing is he has fought back from them. A lot of people wouldn't,” said Neilson. “Others would have said: ‘I’m not going to bother. I’m not going to do the hard yards, the gym work, the bike, the physio and the operations.’
“Craig was just desperate to play and, to his credit, he has earned it. If he goes on to make another ten, 15 or 20 starts for Scotland then he has earned every one of them.
“I certainly don’t think it will faze him at all. The 33rd cap will go with all the others he’s got. I’m delighted for him but big Craig is always the same, looking on to the next match.”
It is that foresight and determination not to wallow in either success or difficulty which brought him back into the international fold exactly 12 months ago. After a derisory contract renewal offer from Celtic, Gordon chose to rejoin formative club Hearts in summer 2020. His career instantly regained traction.
The Edinburgh club had just suffered a controversial enforced relegation to the Championship and Gordon was instilled as first-choice goalkeeper. Within five months, and with Hearts still in Scottish football’s second tier, he was named in the Scotland squad by national coach Steve Clarke.
That was for an international gathering including a European Championship play-off final in Serbia, merely underlining the renewed confidence in Gordon.
“One of the reasons Craig decided to leave Celtic and drop down to the Championship was to play week in and week out. Now he’s back in the Premiership playing at big venues in big games at Ibrox, Celtic Park, Tynecastle, Pittodrie and Easter Road,” Neilson pointed out.
“These are all big grounds with big crowds and you need to be playing in these to get into the international scene. His performances have been outstanding. You saw again some of his saves on Saturday against Dundee United.”
Gordon also holds a Scottish record for the longest-spanning international career. As of today, it is 17 years, five months and 11 days since he first represented his country at senior level. That was in a 4-1 friendly victory against Trinidad and Tobago at Easter Road in May 2004.
He remains the stereotypical evergreen professional who, if anything, seems to improve with age. Thanks to years of endeavour, sacrifice and sheer grit, he now finds himself a cornerstone of a Scotland team once again challenging for major tournament qualification.
Although part of Clarke’s squad for the summer’s European Championship, Gordon remained second-choice keeper behind David Marshall and did not get to participate on the pitch against Czech Republic, England or Croatia. One burning ambition before his career ends is to play for Scotland at the World Cup in Qatar next year.
Barely has that even been a remote possibility for any Scotsman during the last two decades. “It’s great for the fans and the national team that they are pushing for qualification, but it’s also encouraging for the Scottish players in the league,” said Neilson. “They are all looking at it thinking: ‘I want to be part of that. I want to go to a Euros or a World Cup.’
“Ten or 15 years ago, that was never the case. You didn’t think about that. You wanted to play for Scotland. It wasn’t, ‘I want to go to the Euros,’ because we hadn’t been there for 25 years. Now guys are desperate to get in about it and the level of everyone else goes up because of that. It can only help.”