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Valdas Ivanauskas <-auth Richard Winton auth-> Eddie Smith
14 of 096 Paul Hartley 70 ;Christophe Berra 87 L SPL H

And the winner is....


Richard Winton talks to Hearts goalkeeper Craig Gordon about his Player of the Year award and why he has chosen to stick with Vladimir Romanov’s Tynecastle side rather than seek fame and fortune at a bigger club

IF the perceived wisdom regarding a goalkeeper’s attributes being enhanced by the advancement of the years holds true, it is frightening to think of just how good Craig Gordon could be in eight or 10 years.

Despite only turning 23 last year, the Hearts goalkeeper made his 101st Premierleague appearance yesterday, against Kilmarnock, exhibiting yet another of the assured and mature performances which have resulted in him being named this season’s Scottish Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year.

Emerging from a list of contenders containing among others Celtic’s Shaun Maloney, who finished second, and third-placed team-mate Paul Hartley, Gordon becomes the first player to receive the honour while not employed by either Rangers or Celtic since Dundee United captain Maurice Malpas was recognised for his talents in 1991. Indeed, it is 20 years since Sandy Jardine was the last player to win the prize with the Tynecastle club, while no goalkeeper has triumphed since Andy Goram in 1993.

Gordon, whose own vote as Player of the Year is Kris Boyd, seemed delighted and a little surprised as he discussed the decision with some of those who voted for him at his club’s Riccarton base, but was eager to share the plaudits with his colleagues. “It’s nice to be branded alongside people who have been great players at this football club and there are some very big players among the list of those who have won it in the past,” he said. “To win an award that some of these guys have won is a fantastic achievement for myself.

“The last goalkeeper to win it was Andy Goram and that was a good while ago. So it’s very special, as not too many goalkeepers win it and not too many Hearts players as well, so on both counts it’s a very big honour for me and the club. I’d have to pay tribute to a lot of the guys in front of me for helping me get this award, though, and there are a lot of guys to thank in my speech, which I’ll have to think about in the next two or three days.”

While the 15 clean sheets he has amassed this season are, in part, due to the efforts of his colleagues, his remarkable consistency married to a tendency to produce breathtaking saves at crucial junctures ensure a superiority that is much more than simply statistical. That Gordon was mildly criticised for being caught out by John Hartson’s early effort from distance against Celtic two weeks ago is testament to the expectations he has created for himself in a little under three seasons of first-team football, and the miraculous block he produced from Thomas Buffel at Tynecastle last month to earn a point against Rangers may well be enough to ensure Champions League football for his side next season.

“So far this season has been the most consistent I’ve been and to add to that there have been some pretty good stops along the way,” said Gordon.

“You never know how important these saves are going to be and you still don’t until you sit and look at it at the end of the season, but hopefully they have contributed to Hearts having a great season and something to shout about.”

What they have done is ensure Gordon’s place as his nation’s No 1 goalkeeper. Granted, several apparent rivals for the jersey have slipped easily into relative obscurity almost as rapidly as they first appeared but since replacing the injured Rab Douglas during the first half of the World Cup qualifier against Italy in the San Siro last March, Gordon has established himself as a key component of Walter Smith’s Scotland side.

It is a position he evidently treasures, so much so that it was a crucial consideration in the decision to extend his contract with Hearts last month. With a year left on his previous deal, a move away from Tynecastle was mooted with clubs of the stature of Manchester United and Arsenal monitoring his progress, while Paul Le Guen was made aware of his talents in discussions with David Murray regarding signing targets for Rangers.

However, at this stage of his career, he believes he would be better served as a big fish in a small pond with Hearts rather than picking splinters out of his backside in the Premiership or even Europe. The reported £16,000 being deposited in his bank account each week after signing on at Tynecastle until 2009 undoubtedly informed his decision-making process but Gordon gives the impression of a young man who places medals above monetary matters.

“To play for my country I need to keep playing first-team football so that’s got to be a major reason in staying where I am,” he said. “Playing for Scotland is a massive opportunity to face some of the top teams in the world in that qualifying group and if I’m playing here and hopefully doing well, I’ll retain my place in the national team.

“There’s always going to be speculation about players going to whatever club but as far as I’m concerned Hearts made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. The club wanted to keep me, were very serious in their quest and it was all done very quickly, within a week of serious negotiations beginning. It was great to get that wee bit of security behind me, knowing I’ll be here and allowing me to enjoy my football.”

It is no coincidence, though, that Gordon is the highest paid player in the sprawling Tynecastle squad. Vladimir Romanov is clearly an intelligent man and has noted the value – in footballing terms and otherwise – of keeping his club’s biggest asset. The retention of the goalkeeper, and on wages that not only compete with but usurp those of several first-team players at Celtic and Rangers, sends out a message that he is serious in his plans for Hearts. And Gordon has found the Lithuanian’s plans an attractive proposition.

“Mr Romanov wants to break the Old Firm domination and I’d love to be a part of that,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been striving for this season and if we could get second place and split them would be a tremendous start.

“Hopefully the other guys in the dressing room will see that there is a lot to play for here and we are an improving side and in the next few seasons we can continue to develop into a team which is going to challenge for trophies on a regular basis.”

It is a credit to Gordon and his team-mates that Hearts are still very much in contention to achieve the aim of their owner. The upheaval at the club over the season has provided a chaotic backdrop but the players are the ones who have provided the steadying influence, with the more experienced members of the squad taking on a crucial role.

For a 23-year-old to include himself in this category speaks volumes for his personality and character but Gordon says he is happy to shoulder some of the extra dressing room responsibility that his new-found status affords and speak on behalf of his colleagues.

“With everything that has gone on this season you become a little immune to what’s going on in the background and concentrate on your football and getting results,” he said. “If we can continue to do that, we’re going to have a great season to look back on.

“We are very much together in the dressing room and pulling together for the same goal and really want to be successful this season. We’re so close now and have to finish it off. These players have been absolutely magnificent to see us through the challenge put in front of us and hopefully we can finish that off this season with a Champions League place and a cup win.”

That, added to his individual award, would complete the first stage of a career that could scale even more impressive heights in the years to come.

Taken from the Sunday Herald

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