Zander Clark ready to be Scotland No.1 in the absence of 'superhuman' Hearts team-mate Craig Gordon
Four clean sheets in six starts at Hearts proves Zander Clark a worthy goalkeeping replacement for Craig Gordon. Can he now fill the same void at international level? He certainly looks and feels ready.
The double leg break Gordon suffered against Dundee United on Christmas Eve sidelines him until next season, although he has remarkably already started gym work just four weeks since the injury. Admitting his team-mate might be superhuman, Clark discussed stepping into the breach for both club and country with unwavering honesty.
He was in Scotland squads during 2021 and 2022 whilst at former club St Johnstone, but a cap eluded him. The main reason he couldn’t get a game was, ironically, the immovable presence of Gordon. The veteran keeper’s horrific injury propelled Clark into the Hearts team and he has helped earn the Edinburgh club five wins and a draw in those six starts.
Asked if he feels ready to be Scotland No.1 ahead of March’s European Championship qualifiers against Cyprus and Spain, the 30-year-old delivered a bullish response. “Yeah, of course. I don't see why not. You've got back yourself. There's no point playing football if you didn't think you were good enough to go and do something,” he said.
“I've been around the game a long time to get experience at club level to feel: ‘Why not?’ I'm a good age for a goalkeeper. The main aim for me now is to get back into the squad and keep doing as well as I can at club level. If it warrants me getting a place back in the camp, then I'll try and push for a start.
"A space has opened up now that Craigy is having to step out of action, so there's an opportunity there to try and get myself back into the squad. There could be an opportunity to go and play. It's up to me to keep doing well at club level and, if I can get back into squads, then I'd be delighted.
“Even if I’m not involved as part of the squad it’ll be one I’ll be looking forward to. It’ll be a great game, everyone knows how good Spain are. It’s one I’ll look forward to and if I’m involved in the squad it’ll be one I’ll be looking forward to in a different sense because I’ll be preparing for it. If I’m not in the squad, it’ll be one I’ll be looking forward to as a fan.”
Clark is, understandably, reluctant to make any assumptions. Just because he deputises for Gordon at Tynecastle doesn’t automatically mean he will do likewise at Hampden. That decision belongs to national coach Steve Clarke. The Norwich City goalkeeper Angus Gunn recently made it known he would be willing to consider a Scotland call-up having previously refused advances from the Scottish Football Association. However, he is currently on the bench at Carrow Road behind Tim Krul.
Clark is enjoying a dominant run of form in a Hearts team touching the heights during a nine-game unbeaten run. “I feel good and I feel performances have been good. I’ve had a few good spells throughout my career,” he said. “I’m just pleased I’ve managed to go in and the team are going well, which then breeds confidence through every individual player. I’m just pleased I can play as well as I can and keep the momentum going.”
The Scotland incentive has been in his mind since he was called up during St Johnstone’s famous double cup-winning campaign. “It's always something that drives you on anyway, to get into international camps. Any kid that grows up playing football, they've always said that they want to play with their national team. Having been in squads previously, it's something I want to get back doing. Now with an opening there, somebody new might get the chance to step in and play. It's a big incentive.”
He joined Hearts in September as back-up to Gordon and could not have envisaged fate dealing him this hand. Having been reserve keeper with very little chance of playing due to Gordon’s form, Clark is now genuinely in contention to be No.1 for both club and country.
“It just shows you how quickly football can change. The big man was in the form of his life and then just how quickly things can turn. It’s gutting for him but it then opens up that door for me,” he said. “If you had said when I was signing that in a couple of months I would be playing regularly as number one and with a chance of getting in at Scotland, I probably would have laughed at you. It’s just a mad game and how quickly things can change.
“When Craig was playing it was up to me and Cheesy [Ross Stewart] to be at our best in training to make sure we were bringing the best out in Craig. We had to be prepared for that moment. You never know in football when you might get in, so you need to make sure you’re ready to take that chance when it does come along.
“It’s horrible circumstances to get in but I had to make sure I was ready to step in and fill that void the big man has left. He’s a club legend and an international legend as well, so I had to make sure I was right at it and I’ve done well since I’ve come in.”
Videos of Gordon’s gym workouts earlier this week caused a fair stir given his leg was broken in two places just four weeks previously. Despite turning 40 on Hogmanay, he clearly does not intend spending too long on the sidelines. “Aye. If there’s one guy you could see coming back from this scenario, it would be Craig,” said Clark. “His mentality is incredible and it’s great to see. Sometimes you do wonder if he’s actually human! But it’s great to see his rehab is going so well already. Everyone at the club is behind him.”