Craig Gordon exclusive: Hearts captain on Scotland prospects for Craig Halkett and Stephen Kingsley

Craig Gordon sees the similarities. The collective understanding between him and defenders John Souttar, Craig Halkett and Stephen Kingsley this season is starting to feel a bit like the Hearts team of the early to mid-2000s.

Back then, the up-and-coming Gordon was part of a triumvirate with centre-backs Steven Pressley and Andy Webster – current manager Robbie Neilson was the right-back – that the Hearts team was built around.

It was a solid foundation not only for Hearts but for Scotland too. Gordon, Pressley and Webster evolved into the collective heartbeat for club and country under Berti Vogts. He picked them together at first and Walter Smith stuck with them when he took over as Scotland boss.

Gordon is leaving current boss Steve Clarke to make up his own mind, of course, but he knows good relationships at club level can be beneficial for the national team too. He has that understanding with Souttar, Halkett and Kinglsey.

Craig Gordon feels Hearts are better with a settled defence now that Craig Halkett has returned alongside John Souttar and Stephen Kingsley

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“When Steven Pressley and Andy Webster were centre-halves in front of me the first time around, we also played in the international team together and that was a good understanding,” he recalls.

“I do feel I have something similar with Craig, John and Stephen, so it’s good for Hearts to have that stable base and hopefully we can continue that to the end of the season.”

Although the World Cup play-off against Ukraine now looks unlikely to go ahead as scheduled this month, Clarke is due to announce his Scotland squad next week.

Gordon and Souttar, of course, are stick-on selections, but Halkett and Kingsley must be in with a chance.

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Hearts captain Craig Gordon in training

“That’s up to the Scotland manager,” smiles Gordon. “He’s done a pretty good job so far, so I’ll leave that entirely up to him. But in terms of their Hearts form, they’ve all been playing very well.

“We’ve had a good number of clean sheets and we’ll see when it is announced. For them, it’s about performing, like they have been doing, consistently for Hearts and that’s all they can do. We’ll see what happens from there.”

Halkett and Kingsley certainly haven’t done their prospects any harm this week. It was no coincidence that since Halkett returned from injury, Hearts have kept two cleans and picked up six points. In the six games he missed through injury, Hearts won only once in 90 minutes.

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Gordon himself missed the defeat at St Johnstone due to Covid-19, which was especially frustrating because he felt fine. “I didn’t feel anything,” he recalls. “I was absolutely fine the whole time. I just had to wait it out for a few days until I was allowed back in. I’ve had no problems at all.”

John Souttar and Craig Gordon will both be included in Steve Clarke's Scotland squad

Souttar also missed a couple of games just after agreeing a pre-contract with Rangers. But last Saturday against St Mirren in Paisley and on Wednesday against Aberdeen at Tynecastle Park, they were all back and Hearts consequently stopped the rot. All is rosy again.

The Jambos have been at their best this season when Gordon, Souttar, Halkett and Kinglsey have all played, putting a Scottish solid foundation in place at the back.

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All comfortable on the ball, the trio have also been very effective in their own way in an attacking sense, stepping out of defence with the ball or even whipping over crosses.

Kingsley talked this week about how the defensive trio have all got used to playing with each other and how to rotate positions in and out of possession. There’s a connection between them all and Gordon believes it is getting stronger.

Stephen Kingsley has been in impressive form for Hearts on the left side of defence

“We feel it,” he says. “The last couple of games have been good. It’s a good base for the rest of the team to go and play from.

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“They can express themselves and know that they’ve got a good unit behind them, so it’s been good to get it settled again.

“We went through a period when we had a few injuries, there was always somebody missing and lots of players had to step in.

“We got through that. It’s never easy when you have to chop and change everybody at the back. You always want a settled back four or back three, whatever it is. The more we can play together, as a three or four, we are happier with that.

“They are good players as well. That makes such a difference. I feel as if we do have a good understanding about how we want to go about things, both starting the attacks from behind and also defending.”

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For most of the season, Souttar, Halkett and Kinglsey have operated as a back three – like Scotland – but the shape has been tweaked to a fluid back four in the last two games, with Nathaniel Atkinson given more freedom to go forward from right-back. It has worked well.

“We want to get boys forward and Nathaniel wants to get forward and put crosses in, so we’re trying to allow him that little bit more freedom to do that,” explains Gordon.

“It’s something we continue to work on. We’ve played it the last couple of weeks and it has gone well. We must make sure the defensive side of things are obviously good to start with.

“Against Aberdeen we defended really well. If we can restrict teams to a few shots from outside the box I’m going to be a happy man.”

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He would also be very happy to see Kingsley or Halkett join him and Souttar in the Scotland squad next week, but Gordon acknowledges that the game might not go ahead due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Things could change very quickly.

“The situation is changing by the hour,” he says. “It’s absolutely crazy what’s going on at the moment.

“From our side, we have to get ready to play the game and see what happens. The authorities will make the decision. All we can do is prepare to play football.”

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