A few days ago, there were a couple of items in the sports pages which caused more than a little sadness. Paul Gascoigne’s admittance to a clinic in the United States for alcohol addiction was not unexpected to those who have witnessed the former Rangers and England star’s demise in recent years. His appearance at an event held just days before his trip to the States saw him cut a tragic figure with him shaking on stage, barely able to speak. We wish him well but one can’t but help make comparisons with another football icon from a generation before Gascoigne - George Best.
The other story was one that was arguably more of a concern for Hearts and Scotland supporters. The news that former Hearts goalkeeper Craig Gordon would not play the rest of this season was hardly surprising given his injury problems. What was shocking, however, was the announcement from Craig that he may not play football again at all. I have to admit this took my breath away.
It’s scarcely believable it’s more than a decade since Craig Gordon made his debut for Hearts as a young, gangly goalkeeper drafted in to the first team in place of the injured Roddy McKenzie for a game at Livingston in October 2002. The 19 year old performed superbly in a 1-1 draw at Almondvale and it was clear Gordon was about to maintain the Hearts tradition of great goalkeepers. From Jack Harkness to Jim Cruickshank; Henry Smith to Antti Niemi; Gordon Marshall to Gilles Rousset; Hearts have always produced gifted goalkeepers. Craig Gordon would prove to be one of the finest for both club and country.
His performance a year later in the cauldron of the Stade-Chaban Delmas in Bordeaux in the UEFA Cup was confirmation of the day the boy wonder grew into a man. Repeatedly, the big fella kept the Bordeaux forwards at bay as Hearts maintained a rearguard action during that first leg in an attempt to keep alive the return leg at Tynecastle three weeks later. His performance, particularly in the second half in front of the 3,500 strong Maroon Army, was one of the finest goalkeeping displays I’ve ever seen. As we kept a constant eye on the stadium clock as it edged closer to 90 minutes and a creditable goalless draw, big Mark de Vries scored a dramatic winner towards the end of the game to spark mass celebrations among the jubilant Hearts support. As a Hearts supporter himself, Craig Gordon took the acclaim of the appreciative Hearts fans. His brilliant performance, added to a fantastic result meant that day in the south of France would be etched on the memory of every Hearts fan who was there.
Two years later and Hearts embarked on a remarkable season that saw them win the Scottish Cup and qualify for the preliminary stage of the UEFA Champions League. In the course of writing a book about that incredible season, I had the pleasure of interviewing Craig at Hearts training facilities at Riccarton. He was amiable and answered my questions knowledgably and with an assurance that typified the way he performed between the sticks. He told me he prepared the same way for every game whether it was a league cup-tie against Queens Park or a World Cup qualifier against Italy. Preparation was the key - and the affable keeper said it was important to remember it was his performances against the likes of Queens Park that helped develop him as a player. His assertion that ‘if he messed up in a Scottish Cup tie against Albion Rovers, that wouldn’t do his international chances any good’ was typically modest of a man who treated every game as if it were his last.
Craig Gordon’s last game for Hearts came not at Tynecastle but at Murrayfield in a friendly against those giants of world football, Barcelona in 2007. Within days, he was heading to Sunderland in a deal worth £9m - a record for a Scottish goalkeeper that may well never be broken.
It’s fair to say things didn’t work out as well as expected for Craig during his time at Sunderland. The Black Cats lost 7-1 to Everton a few weeks later and manager Roy Keane made Gordon the fall guy. He then suffered a knee injury a year later, which kept him out for nearly a year. After a long recovery period, he regained his place in the Sunderland first team until fate took another twist in November 2009 when he broke his arm in a game at Tottenham.
He fractured the same arm again in the summer of 2010 but, once again, fought back to regain his first team place. However, he suffered another knee injury in 2011 and while he came back yet again, he was released by Sunderland last summer.
His knee continues to trouble him and he recently began helping out former Hibs player and now Dumbarton manager Ian Murray with some coaching. Like every other Hearts fan - and Scotland fan - I sincerely hope we have not seen the last of Craig Gordon as a player. I’ve seen many fine goalkeepers at Tynecastle and the big man is among the finest. Losing such a gifted player as Craig Gordon at just 30 years of age would be difficult to accept for those of us who have followed his remarkable journey.
Whatever happens, Craig Gordon will always be a Hearts legend. And, in my view and, I’m sure that of thousands of other Hearts supporters, he will always be Scotland’s number one.
Twitter @Mike 1874