Hearts outline Zander Clark's value after his Scotland promotion
Goalkeeper returns to Riccarton knowing a pivotal period in his career is about to start
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Zander Clark returned to Riccarton this week conscious that the biggest few months of his career lie ahead. The Hearts goalkeeper became Scotland No.1 role against Georgia and Norway but knows both his international and club places are under serious threat as he strives to make Steve Clarke's European Championship squad next summer.
Craig Gordon is gaining fitness and preparing to challenge again for the keeper slot with Hearts and Scotland. Norwich City's Angus Gunn was the national team's first-choice for Euro 2024 qualifying until a minor muscle injury sidelined him last month. Clark won the battle to deputise ahead of Motherwell's Liam Kelly. Now he faces an even tougher fight to hold on to two positions he has worked tirelessly, and waited patiently, to achieve.
Both are mutually beneficial. Like everyone else, Clark needs regular game time at club level in order to stay involved with the national squad and reach Euro 2024. At 31, it would be a career pinnacle were he to find himself on the plane to Germany come June.
Hearts recognise that he was waiting as an able deputy when Gordon broke his leg last December. That led to a Scotland recall, an international debut in October's friendly with France, and then two competitive outings in the recent Georgia and Norway fixtures. He has plenty to ponder after 2-2 and 3-3 draws respectively.
"From the club's point of view it's brilliant. We value Zander really highly," the Hearts head coach Steven Naismith explained to the Edinburgh News. "I don't think you get a better solution last season when Craigy gets injured in terms of having somebody to come in who has experience, won things and at a good age.
"Zander and Liam got their first caps last month because of the work they did earlier. With this trip, obviously there was a decision to be made. It's brilliant for Zander. I think Liam will feel slightly hard done by. He will have backed himself just like Zander.
"For Zander, he has put the hours in and put the time in. People say it's a privilege to go away with your country - and it is - but when you do that for so many caps it can become taxing when it eats into your summer break and family holidays. Zander has never wavered. He always had belief, thinking: 'No, I'll go along, I'll get a chance and I want to be involved.' He got his rewards last month and this month. This time will probably feel more special."
Naismith worked within Clarke's Scotland coaching staff until his own promotion at Hearts during the summer. He knows intensity will be building with players eager to push for a Euro 2024 squad place. Clark is one of many seeking to impress.
"That's what he needs to do, get those opportunities," said Naismith. "Firstly, it's about every day in training. I know how much the manager values and takes in everything at training - how people are acting around the place. That all comes into it.
"When it gets to the decision-making, that's probably what the manager has mainly gone on. Last week at training, there will have been internal pressure. They [goalkeepers] will have been thinking: 'He's going to need to make a decision. What if I have a nightmare? Or what if I make good saves?' Then, when Zander plays, the value from the manager is higher now than it was before."