Now that Craig Gordon is in Scotland's all-time top 10, how much higher can the Hearts hero go?
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Over 38,000 Scotland supporters showed up at Hampden for a fixture everyone would rather have not taken place. The home side were supposed to be hosting Ukraine while Poland faced Russia in the World Cup play-offs. The visitors may have been secretly delighted they received a bye into the final as a result of joining the Czech Republic and Sweden in refusing to play the Russians, but nobody could be happy with the circumstances surrounding it. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked a humanitarian crisis as the world looks on in horror as a global superpower tries to crush its humble neighbour.
The response from around Europe has generated some warmth and comfort for those who feared humanity’s ability to find empathy and compassion was dying away. Many large-hearted souls have opened their doors to refugees fleeing the conflict, while others have done whatever they can to support.
This included the Hampden Park crowd on Thursday evening. It had long been announced £10 of every ticket sold would go to Unicef and their response to the war. This must have had a positive impact on a crowd. Scotland actually being a decent side to watch these days would have contributed, but it’s telling this was the biggest crowd for a home friendly at Hampden since March 2000.
Poland being the opponent was a coincidence, but it was fitting that it was the country who’ve given the most help to Ukraine who should be face their play-off rivals instead. The fact Robert Lewandowski remained on the bench for 90 minutes said everything you needed to know about their feelings toward winning the game, but it gave them the opportunity to fine tune some things prior to their big match next week. It was the kind of encounter where even half-and-half scarves counted as acceptable attire. Scotland fans showed off ‘stop the war’ flags in Ukrainian colours, while the centre circle was lit up in blue and yellow prior to kick-off.
Gordon may have taken all of this in because he didn’t have much else to do for the first 93 minutes. Playing in his eighth straight international, his longest run in 14 years, the Hearts captain got his first touch of the ball on 17 minutes as he dropped down to clutch an inswinging cross. From there he was more spectator than player. Bartosz Salamon should have tested him with a header but sent it off target, while sub Krzysztof Piątek at least had him scrambling across goal with an early second-half shot. Piątek did have the beating of him in the 65th minute, though Billy Gilmour was on hand to clear off the line.
By the time he was called into action again, to cut out a cross from Matty Cash, the Polish wing-back from Slough, Scotland had their goal through Kieran Tierney and were well on their way to a seventh consecutive victory.
Regrettably, Piątek didn’t adhere to the spirit of the occasion. The striker went past Gordon late into stoppage time and conned the referee by throwing himself to the turf. He dusted himself off and fired his spot-kick straight down the middle for a one-all draw. It left a sour taste, particularly so for the Tynecastle hero, but when it’s all said and done it’ll be a mere footnote on another special night for the stopper.
At which point in Gordon’s career was his eventual breaking into the top 10 of all-time Scotland caps at its most implausible? His two years out of the game through injury? His brief spell as a goalkeeping coach at Dumbarton? Losing his status as No.1 at Celtic to Scott Bain? (Hahaha – wild) Or going to the second tier for the first time in his career to rejoin his boyhood heroes and first club?
The 39-year-old is well-skilled in defying perceptions regarding his career conclusion, but how long can he do it for? Conventional wisdom would say another year, maybe two at the most? But we’re now in an era where athletes are continually outlasting the due date of their final chapter. Tom Brady will quarterback in the NFL next season at 45. LeBron James is still one of the ten best NBA players at 37. Even in football there’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who recently celebrated his 37th birthday and is a double-digit scorer in the English Premier League. Plus, goalkeepers have a longer shelf life. If Dino Zoff played in the ‘82 World Cup for Italy at 40, could Craig Gordon a couple of years further in the age of sports science?
If he keeps going strong, how high can he climb on the all-time list? There are around nine internationals a year if you don’t reach a major tournament, so Scotland no longer being allergic to finals would certainly aid his cause. The absence of regular friendlies will also help, as there will be fewer meaningless fixtures in which to rotate in another goalkeeper just to have a closer look.
Taking a conservative estimate at 12 appearances over this year and next, that would take him up to 77 caps, enough to overtake Christian Dailly (67), Kenny Miller, David Weir (both 69), Tom Boyd (72) and Paul McStay (76). It would put him level with Alex McLeish and enough for a place in the top 5. The only summits left to scale are Darren Fletcher (80), Jim Leighton (91) and Kenny Dalgleish (102). Making an assault on either of the latter two feels fanciful, but could he break into the top three all-time? It would be a tremendous achievement and while doing so he would set a record for caps won at Hearts that won’t be broken for a long, long time. Just don’t bet against him getting there.