When Craig Gordon’s name was first linked with a return to Hearts during the January transfer window, I was a little underwhelmed at the prospect. It wasn’t because of a blanket aversion to the return of former players that other fans often express (after all, we’ve seen players come back for second spells in the past decade and perform just as strongly as they did in their first), it’s just that a 37-year old with only six first team appearances that season and question marks over his distribution, returning to play for a manager who appeared intent on having a goalkeeper who was comfortable with the ball at his feet, seemed like square pegs in round holes.
Furthermore, with Daniel Stendel more focused on finding attacking players capable of executing his intense, high-pressing game plan for the relegation dogfight that lay ahead, it was clear just how low down his list of priorities a new goalkeeper was. At the time, I had no real issue with that.
Subsequent events have caused me to reevaluate that position. For starters, it became abundantly obvious in the ensuing weeks that Joel Pereira could have had the feet of Lionel Messi and they would have done little to compensate for his Teflon hands.
Had Stendel reached the same conclusion at that stage and reinstated Bobby Zlamal earlier than he did, it’s likely he would still have a valid contract with the club and be looking for his own goalkeeper ahead of the new season. With Robbie Neilson having replaced the German last week, yesterday’s signing of Gordon makes far more sense now than it originally appeared to six months ago.
Even as Gordon’s contract discussions with Celtic were reaching a stalemate during lockdown and his availability became increasingly apparent, he seemed almost too good an option for us to be considering for Championship football when an equally-reliable goalkeeper could be found for that level at a fraction of the salary outlay. However, this is where it becomes clear that in signing Gordon, the club is investing as much in his influence off the field as on it.
If it had simply been a case of finding an adequate custodian for a season in the second tier, even perennial gaffe-merchants Zlamal and Colin Doyle would have found it difficult to make a mess of that. Yet, a club in Hearts’ current position, at its lowest ebb in years and looking to rediscover its identity, needs strong leadership figures who have achieved success at the club and understand the demands of the jersey. In Gordon and Neilson, cup-winning teammates back in 2006, Hearts have re-established some semblance of that familiarity.
That experience should add significant value to a dressing room that may still see existing leadership figures depart, depending on the financial outlook when all off-field matters have been resolved in court. Even if Neilson does have the resources to retain some of his more senior squad members for next season, there is likely to be a greater emphasis on youth than there has been in recent years, meaning Gordon – along with the likes of Steven Naismith, Michael Smith and possibly Christophe Berra if he returns to the fold – will be expected to guide their younger team-mates along the way.
For 18-year old Harry Stone, who many consider to be Hearts’ most promising goalkeeping prospect since Gordon himself broke into the first team 17 years ago, the 54-time Scotland international will be a particularly welcome presence around Riccarton. After all, who better to support his development than the man he is being hotly tipped to emulate?
As well as providing an important piece in the rebuilding of both the squad and the club’s identity, the decision to bring Gordon back also represents a significant step in the repair job being conducted on the club’s relationship with the supporters, which has already been boosted by the collective stance against the SPFL and Neilson’s return last week.
He may be entering the twilight of his career, but he is still (at least by Hearts’ modest standards) as big a crowd-pleasing statement signing as we could have hoped for after two seasons of alarming inconsistency in that area of the pitch.
And although I was admittedly indifferent to the prospect of signing him back in January, when watching his showreel of impressive saves that accompanied yesterday’s unveiling on Twitter, it was hard not to get caught up in the nostalgia of a bygone time when goalkeeper was a position we traditionally excelled in.
Now that Craig Gordon has come home, those days may yet return.