Craig Gordon's brilliance, Scotland's youthful energy and Hampden roar mean no fear in World Cup play-off draw
FIFA officials will pull teams from pots in Zurich at 4pm UK time, handing national coach Steve Clarke a final route on a potential path to Qatar 2022. As seeds, Scotland will play their semi-final at home with a separate draw also staged tomorrow to decide a venue for the final should they advance.
There is little to fear. The country is surfing a euphoric wave after six successive qualifying wins powered by youthful energy, a brilliant goalkeeper and a raucous Hampden Park. The Tartan Army simply cannot get enough. Likewise the players.
Craig Gordon in goal is old enough to be the father of both Billy Gilmour and Nathan Patterson, yet he is feeding off their exuberance. Hampden is back to being full and intimidating as it was during the 1970s and 80s. It is no coincidence that Scotland routinely qualified for World Cups back then.
Gordon, the Hearts goalkeeper, is convinced a full national stadium will be pivotal to the nation’s chances of navigating these play-offs. Anyone who attended the final two home qualifiers against Israel and Denmark would agree. Sensible ticket pricing from the Scottish FA has helped enormously.
“Those two matches against Israel and Denmark, the atmosphere was incredible,” said Gordon. “Hampden is such a good place to play when it’s full. It can be difficult when it’s empty to create pressure on the other team but when it’s like that you hear players talking about it and I think it was a factor.
“That’s something we need to have if we can fill Hampden and have everyone pulling in the right direction. That’s what it has been during this campaign from players and fans. The atmosphere around the national team has been so positive. Everyone is fighting for the same thing. It makes a huge difference.
“Hampden has produced great games. I enjoy playing at there. I’ve been lucky enough to get to semi-finals and finals and play for Scotland, so it’s a stadium I’ve played most of my football at out with Tynecastle and Celtic Park. It’s a fantastic place to play but when it’s full is when it’s at its best.”
The youthful element within the national team are thriving on the intensity right now. Chelsea’s Gilmour and Rangers’ Patterson are both just 20, while Gordon turns 39 next month. The keeper could probably parent both.
“I try not to think about that too much but it is true,” he smiled. “Hopefully I still manage to hold my own in training and keep a few of their shots out. The energy levels in the squad are brilliant.
“Some of the stats from the young boys in games and the distances they travel, I’m just glad I don’t have to do that. I can’t compete with the energy levels but hopefully I can keep the team in the game to let them go and win it.”
He ranks the current group as “close to the top” of the squads he has been involved in for overall togetherness and unity. Being a wise old owl doesn’t faze him too much.
“I wish I wasn’t. I wish I could go and play for another ten to 15 years but that is something that has crept up and I don’t think about it too much. The togetherness is so good in that squad that it wouldn’t matter what age anyone was.
“It’s a really good mix of ages, although I am the oldest by a considerable distance. The players all complement each other really well and the manager has created a good atmosphere. The staff have too, so it’s an enjoyable squad to be part of.
“Nobody will be pulling out of squads unless they absolutely have to. We still have guys turning up who know they are injured but still try to make the games. That’s great for everyone else to know that we are all giving everything to get to a World Cup.”
He doesn’t have a preference on which opponent Scotland draw tomorrow. For Gordon, this is perhaps one final chance to represent his country at a major tournament. He spent three years injured between 2011 and 2014 and wondered at times if such an accolade would ever honour him.
“That would have been the most optimistic I could have got, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t something that I thought was possible. Maybe not at all points but certainly when I was coming back,” he said.
“That’s what I wanted to achieve was to get to the very top and be the best I could. I had no idea if I could or not but it was something to strive for. Now we’ve got a couple of games to go. The first is the most important because we need to win it to get a second game.
“But we have given ourselves a chance. It was a good campaign. It was a great amount of points for Scotland to get . Only one defeat in the whole campaign is pretty good going and to only get a play-off seems a little harsh, but we have two games we have to win. It will be an incredible achievement if we manage to do it.”
Beyond that, who knows? Gordon’s Hearts contract is due expire next summer. Nobody plays forever, although a certain Gianluigi Buffon is still going at Parma approching his 44th birthday. “That would mean I have five years left. A five-year contract? I don’t know if they will be parting with one of them,” laughed Gordon.