Craig Gordon was almost cast aside by Hearts aged 15 because he was too small.
The intervening 17 years have seen him stand tall and show towering strength to fight back into contention for the Scotland goalkeeping shirt. Jim Stewart has watched all these events unfold, mesmerised by Gordon’s desire and tenacity.
Stewart is the Scotland goalkeeping coach and was part of the Hearts coaching team when Gordon was a teenager. He recalls management at Tynecastle swithering over whether to offer the young keeper a contract because of his height. His growth didn’t accelerate until 16 and 17 and he now stands at 6ft 3in.
Patience paid off in the end for Hearts, who would eventually transfer Gordon to Sunderland in a £9million deal. Persistent knee injuries later threatened his career and, as recently as 12 months ago, Gordon had been out for two years and was battling to prove his fitness. Celtic took a chance on him and, after Fraser Forster’s move to Southampton, Gordon became their No.1.
He finished the season with league and League Cup winner’s medals and the Scottish Football Writers’ Player of the Year award. None of it has surprised Stewart.
“The biggest thing with Craig is his mental strength. When I first worked with Hearts he was there as a 15-year-old. At that time, there was a debate about whether he should or should not get a contract. There was a bit of debate over his height as well because he was small. He had good technical abilities, but the question being asked was: ‘Will he grow?’
“But Hearts at that time didn’t have another goalkeeper to come in. So the decision was made to put him on a contract. Nobody knows at that age whether they are going to progress into the goalkeepers they are. He showed his mental strength back then. He always had this desire to be a top-class player, a top-class goalkeeper. That hasn’t deserted him at any stage.”
Stewart, who is also goalkeeping coach at Rangers, saw first-hand that Gordon was fit and ready when he trained at Murray Park at the end of last season. “When he was doing his rehab at Rangers that desire to get back to the top flight was with him,” continued Stewart. “I’ve not been surprised at all because I know the desire that he has and I know the standards that he sets himself.
“He has done fantastically well to get back to where he’s at. Nobody knew where he was going to go or what level he was going to play at or how many games you are going to play. For him to go through the season and play 50 odd games is fantastic. Obviously he is in a different phase of his career now where he has got to programme his training and tailor it towards the matches.”
Gordon faces another fight to re-establish himself as Scotland’s first-choice keeper. David Marshall and Allan McGregor make up the most competitive international goalkeeping trio this country has seen for decades. Marshall is likely to be given the nod next week for the vital Euro 2016 qualifier with Republic of Ireland. Odds are that Gordon will play at some stage in tomorrow night’s friendly with Qatar at Easter Road, with McGregor not in the squad this time.
Stewart believes Gordon, 32, has matured and is possibly even more accomplished than he was before injury struck. “We did that the last time in the game against Northern Ireland. They decided to use Craig and Allan and give them 45 minutes each. Then David played against Gibraltar. We haven’t spoken about the match and who is going to be involved, but David has had a period of inactivity because Cardiff stopped playing on May 3.
“We have got to look at where that will take us in terms of the team. But it will be one where we will look at and decide if we are going to give them 45 minutes each.
“There is a train of thought going about at the moment that has picking goalkeepers like picking outfield players. If the opposition is the type that plays crosses in the box then do you pick the goalkeeper who is strong on crosses? My belief is that the guy who is playing and is in form, then you go along with that. There is a thin line with confidence. If you don’t get picked then you think: ‘Why am I not playing?’ You go through that psychologically. I think it is difficult to select a goalkeeper on an individual game.”