Hearts: Why Craig Gordon's is the league leaders' most valuable player and Scotland's best goalkeeper
Since the 1950s, Hearts have been blessed with fine goalkeepers. Gordon Marshall and Jim Cruickshank, Henry Smith and Giles Rousset, Antti Niemi and Craig Gordon.
Season 2019/20, however, was one which changed the perception of the goalkeeper at Tynecastle. No longer will a competent, match-winning, points-saving No.1 be taken for granted around Gorgie way.
A highlights reel of goals conceded in the league last campaign could be used as the worst kind of torture to many fans.
From start to finish, it was one calamity after another.
The mix-up between Christophe Berra and Zdenek Zlamal for the first goal of the season against Aberdeen to the mix-up between Sean Clare and Colin Doyle against Motherwell, right through the litany of errors from Joel Pereira.
The on-loan Manchester United goalkeeper’s final game came in a 5-0 defeat by Celtic. The first concession prompted a quite incredible reaction from his team-mates. Jamie Walker stood arms outstretched. Sean Clare, Andy Irving and Ben Garuccio turned, shoulders slumped in disbelief. John Souttar and Michael Smith were enraged as to why Pereira didn’t hold it. Craig Halkett simply couldn’t believe it.
In terms of the chances for opposition teams, Hearts were expected to concede 43 goals last season. They conceded 52. It was the worst difference in the league.
There was speculation, of course, of a return for Gordon in January 2020. Such a move would have been the difference between the club finishing bottom and not. For a start, the team wouldn't have conceded the six goals they did against St Johnstone and Kilmarnock across five days in February.
His arrival, a return of a cup-winning legend, in the summer was welcomed – a signing with the return to the Premiership in mind.
He was expected to have a relaxed season where his goalkeeping heroics weren't likely required. In a way, the first part of that is accurate. Of the nine goalkeepers who have played 15 games or more, he has faced by far the fewest shots on average.
Player of the year
Yet, the 38-year-old has been – by some distance – not only the best player in the Scottish Championship, but Hearts’ player of the season.
It wasn't meant to be that way. The team’s attacking players were meant to take the league by storm, firing the club back into the Premiership. Liam Boyce has largely been excellent and the most consistent performer in the final third. Still, no one has come close to matching Gordon’s propensity of producing big moments on a consistent basis.
When it is mentioned that Gordon’s presence would have meant Hearts avoided finishing bottom of the Premiership last season, it can certainly be argued his performances and saves have meant the team have not been dragged into a closer title race with those below them.
Take Saturday for instance. In the 90th minute, a free-kick is clipped into the box where it is met by Euan Murray – one of the most dangerous headers of the ball in the league. Just when it seemed Hearts would fall to a third defeat in a row, Gordon dropped to his left and repelled the effort with his foot. All the more impressive with Armand Gnanduillet moving across his field of vision just as the ball was headed towards him.
During the game, the Pars created six good chances but hit the target just twice. Being confronted with Gordon and his intimidating presence can’t be underestimated in making forwards hesitate or think twice about where to shoot.
It wasn’t a one-off incident. The season has been littered with key Gordon interventions, made all the more impressive considering his general lack of involvement. Some games he’s had one save to make but his concentration levels are such that he is there to make it.
Twice against Dundee with Hearts winning 2-1 he produced double saves, the best coming from Osman Sow then Jonathan Afolabi, saving a shot with his right foot then getting up, scooting across his line to save with his left foot.
Against Dunfermline at Tynecastle when it was 0-0 in the first-half, both Gordon and Stephen Kingsley got caught under a cross. Ryan Dow’s header looked goal bound before Gordon shifted his body and palmed the ball from under the bar out for a corner. It left four Pars players with their hands on their head.
The brilliant penalty stop against Raith Rovers, denying Danny Mullen in a one v one against Dundee, twice getting down sharply to save from Kris Doolan in the 1-0 win over Arbroath and spreading himself at the feet of Shane Sutherland in a recent draw with Inverness CT.
A considerable chunk of the club's 11-point lead is Gordon's doing.
Then there are his cup heroics. That early season wonder save against ICT in the Betfred Cup. As for the Scottish Cup, Kevin Nisbet is probably still unsure how the goalkeeper prevented him scoring in the semi-final.
At times, Gordon appears to have this prescient ability of knowing where the ball is going. It is the only explanation why he makes these saves which take your breath away at first but on second viewing he makes them look so simple.
From the goalkeeper who emerged from the academy, he is sturdier, even better at commanding his box and claiming crosses, while his ability to save shots with his feet and legs is underappreciated.
Unlike those who have gone before him recently at Tynecastle, he stands tall and makes himself bigger, moves his feet quicker and, more than anything, doesn’t allow shots to go through him.
His form has understandably and deservedly earned him a recent Scotland cap and he should be Steve Clarke’s No.1 for the Euros. Big games need big moments and of those goalkeepers available to Clarke no one is capable of producing them more regularly than Craig Gordon.
The 2020/21 Hearts player of the season continues to do it time and time again.