IT is not quite a birthday without having to don his work clothes. Craig Gordon, the Hearts and Scotland goalkeeper, will blow out 39 candles today following a Tynecastle training session but ultimately there is little respite ahead.
Arguably one of the contenders for player of this season so far this term with performances for Hearts that believe his advancing – in athletic terms – years, such has been his domestic form that he has returned to claim the number one place in Steve Clarke’s side.
There remain question marks over Celtic’s unwillingness to retain the services of Gordon 18 months ago but certainly there was no easing off for the keeper when he returned to where it all began. Having been part of Scotland’s squad at last summer’s European Championships, Gordon is a more active participant in a team that are just potentially two games away from their first World Cup since 1998.
“To be back playing at that level, at this age, is really exciting for me,” he said. “I know that there might not be many more opportunities for me, so to still be at that level and be playing with guys who are so much younger than me, being part of a successful team, it’s great for me.
“Hopefully we can keep that going in 2022. Because there have been lots of highlights along the way in 2021. Even getting to the Euros, even though I didn’t play, to be part of that squad, it does feel like a squad effort when we’re away with Scotland. Everybody plays their part.
“I was delighted to be part of that squad for the Euros and the play in those World Cup qualifiers. With Scotland, we’ll be up against two other teams – hopefully – who have done well to qualify for the play-offs as well.
‘It’s going to be really difficult, a real challenge, but it honestly couldn’t get any more exciting than that. Hopefully we can win the necessary games to achieve on both fronts.
“I actually get to celebrate my birthday this year, which makes a change. It’s not often in my football career that it’s happened. There have been some obviously highlights for me this year. Here at Hearts, getting promoted at the first attempt was really important for the club, just to get back into the Premiership. I played a big part in that and really enjoyed it.
“That was in front of no fans, we had to get the job done, and it does make it difficult. Beyond that, I’ve really enjoyed the national team games and getting back into that starting line-up.”
Scotland’s next challenge under Clarke is to find a way past Ukraine at Hampden in March. If successful, Wales could be up next, assuming they prevail against Austria. Home advantage for the semi-place play-off only really comes into its own if it is in front of a packed crowd with Gordon optimistic that there will be no threat to supporters in stadia by that stage.
“I think people have realised what they’ve been missing out on, the whole occasion that a football match can bring,” said Gordon. “When people started missing out on that, when they couldn’t go to games, they realised how important it was to them. It has added to the atmospheres, since fans have come back. They’ve made a noise and really enjoyed the games, whether that’s with Hearts or Scotland. And we love having them back.”
“Nobody looks forward to playing in empty grounds. We need to get them back in as soon as possible – if it’s safe. We don’t want to be doing anything that causes extra harm.”
On the domestic front, Gordon has been pivotal as Hearts have made an intriguing start to the campaign. In third place and eyeing up a European place, Gordon’s experience has been a key factor in ensuring a seamless return to the top flight after the acrimony of the club’s Championship season.
“I think we’re sitting in a good position,” he said. “We’re looking to kick on in the second half of the season and get as many points on the board as we can.
“We’ve got a few fixtures when we come back that we’re looking at and feeling like, if we pick up points, that keeps the pressure on the teams below us.
“If we concentrate on ourselves and keep doing that, we give ourselves a chance to maintain this – and look at the two teams above us.
‘If they are to drop any points, we can be there. But that comes from concentrating on ourselves and keeping everyone else below us.
“You have to just roll up your sleeves and get on with it. We managed to get through it in the last couple of games before the break, getting some really important points. In this league, no matter who you’re playing, you know you’ll have to scrap and fight just to get the points.”