BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson has backed “world class” Craig Gordon to make the Scotland number one spot his own after revealing the Celtic goalkeeper could have been lining up for the Jambos tomorrow afternoon.
Gordon, 33, enjoyed his first Scotland outing in 10 months on Tuesday evening as he kept a composed clean sheet in the heartening 1-0 win over Denmark.
It was a poignant evening for Gordon, who won his 44th cap, as the friendly clash represented his 100th senior match since recovering from the persistent knee injuries which threatened to cut his career short.
He did not play a single match between April 2012 and August 2014, when he returned to action in the colours of Celtic, and Neilson reckons that mix of character and quality would make him a fitting first choice for the national team.
Neilson lauded: “I’m delighted to see him doing well for Scotland. I know Craig well and he had his issues with his knee. He was thinking about retiring so to get to the level he is at is phenomenal.
“He could have just chucked it with that knee problem. I had something similar myself and it is very painful and it’s difficult to keep going.
“But Craig managed to get a good surgeon who helped him out and that just shows you are never finished in football. If he got that cleared up there was never any doubt he was going to be a top goalkeeper again.
“I saw him reflecting on playing 100 games now. Maybe even he didn’t see that happening.
“I could definitely see him becoming Scotland number one again. When you are playing for Celtic, taking part in the Champions League and winning trophies then I don’t see why not.”
Neilson recalls when a diminutive, teenage Gordon arrived at Hearts as a raw schoolboy – and marvelled at his progress to become the most expensive British goalkeeper in history with a £9 million move to Sunderland in 2007.
And, when the big stopper was finally ready to resume his career in 2014, he made an audacious bid to bring Gordon back to Tynecastle. Instead, the lure of continental competition took him to Glasgow’s east end.
He said: “I spoke to him before he went to Celtic because I knew he had issues and he was looking for a club. He was one I would have been delighted to get in.
“We had spoken to him about coming here but Celtic had offered him something and he wanted to go there. It was a chance to play Champions League football, which is understandable.
“He’s a good keeper and he’ll be a good keeper for the next five or six years as well. In my opinion he is still world class, he is a top keeper. He’s one you never like seeing on the team lines against you!
“When he first came in at Hearts as a young kid and he was quite small. Then he grew three or four inches in a year! It took him time to grow into his body. Then there was a period when he was here where we couldn’t score against him in training. He was phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal.
“He got his move for £9million – and if he’d stayed fit it would have been money well spent.”
Despite the onerous task of finding a way past his good friend, Neilson is adamant his side are well equipped to spring a shock and register a first league win at Parkhead since April 2007 – when Gordon was between the sticks for the Jambos.
They claimed a 0-0 draw at the home of the champions in September, and could have stolen all three points if not for Efe Ambrose’s late professional foul on a goal-bound Sam Nicholson.
Yet, Neilson insists his side have improved immensely since that afternoon and will arrive in Glasgow seeking to close the nine-point gap to second placed Aberdeen.
He added: “It’s a difficult place to go and not many teams win there. We got a decent result last time but we had to defend really well.
“I expect this to be a different game. Our players have improved since then. The guys who came in during the summer understand Scottish football more and the younger players have enjoyed more game time.
“We’re in a better position, but that’s not to say we expect to turn up and get a result. We have to be 100 per cent and hope luck is on our side as well.”
Meanwhile, Neilson insists there is no way loan star Billy King will be leaving Hearts permanently this summer as he continues to impress with Rangers.
He added: “He has a future here. I think he will be a big player for us next season, with European football and a bigger squad.
“I felt like he needed game time and, with the way Rangers play, it suited him down to a tee. He can push forward and run at people, play in front of big crowds, score goals and get his confidence up. But then he is definitely coming back.”