It was 14 seconds into the 69th minute at Tannadice on Christmas Eve 2022 when Craig Gordon collided with Dundee United striker Steven Fletcher. As referee Colin Steven ran pointing to the penalty spot, Michael Smith gestured to the medical team. For six minutes, as physios attended to the stricken goalkeeper, concern built amongst the Heart of Midlothian support before he was stretchered off. It wasn’t long before images of what would turn out to be a double-leg break filtered through to those in the stadium. Concern turned to fear. Fear that it would be the last time one of the greatest to have played for the club would don the No.1 shirt.

Gordon gave an update on his recovery prior to the club’s 2-0 win over Aberdeen, revealing on HeartsTV he could return to full training this week, nine months on from the injury. It opens up the exciting prospect of Gordon taking his place between the sticks. A place he has made home over two spells. A place where he has provoked expletives from opposition fans and prompted the dropping of jaws amongst the Hearts faithful with spellbinding saves and scintillating performances. Words usually reserved for wingers and forwards. But against Bordeaux and Braga, Motherwell and Sparta Prague, Hibs and Hibs again, and many more, he has cultivated a very special place at Tynecastle Park and in the hearts of the club’s supporters.

Hearts Standard sat down with Craig Gordon to look back at his goalkeeping journey to becoming a bona fide club legend, while mastering the art of the most difficult position in football.

I started the season at left wing because I was left footed. We got beat seven or 8-0 in the first game. I very quickly realised I could help the team more by stopping the other team scoring.

It is easy to look back now and suggest Gordon was destined to become a goalkeeper. After all, his dad David played in goals for Stirling Albion and in the East of Scotland league. Yet, no different to other young kids interested in football, Gordon wanted to score goals. That was before his goalkeeping talent emerged and enjoyment of the position grew. A set of goals, a Christmas present, were installed in the house and then in the back garden. When playing with friends he would find himself taking more and more turns as the keeper.

Gordon noted the “influence” of his dad. Watching his old man provided him with “a wee bit of knowledge, probably more so than other kids that age,” of what is required as a goalkeeper. But as important at that age was the development of his hand-eye coordination, reaction and catching by playing badminton, rugby, table tennis and cricket.

“My mum and dad played badminton so I would go along to the club and join in,” Gordon told Hearts Standard. “I played cricket as well. With batting you don’t get a lot of reaction time when the ball is coming down to either get into line to play a shot or to leave the ball. I had a table tennis table in my garage. That hand-eye coordination, reaction time was something that was getting built in subconsciously without really thinking about it. All these little things were building a good base for a goalkeeper without me specifically thinking about goalkeeping. I think it was a culmination of all those things that led me down the path of probably being slightly better than the others at my age at that time.”

No doubt he is one of those who excels at anything he turns his hand to. He even admitted there was a choice to be made between football and rugby when the latter moved to a full-size pitch, even if there was always going to be a “clear winner”. Hearts fans may even recall the goalkeeper dealing with a rugby ball thrown onto the pitch in an Edinburgh derby at Easter Road in 2004. The goalkeeper produced an expert spin pass out the pitch, clearly having retained the skill from his days as a stand-off.

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That position in rugby is often played by a smaller, more diminutive individual. And that’s what Gordon was for much of his younger years. Now 6ft5in, he was just 5ft9in when he turned 15. It is well known that Gordon’s Hearts career could have been over before it had even been started. Thankfully for him and the club, Jim Stewart, the goalkeeper coach at the time, fought his corner.

“I had gone back to do sixth year at Balerno,” he explained. “It wasn’t until October [1999] I signed for Hearts. They had kind of made the decision that they were going down another route. At that point you could play an overage goalkeeper in the league for the Under-18s but that wasn’t allowed for the cup. Not long before the first round of the cup they had to sign a goalkeeper. Almost by default, not having a club, I was signed on a year-and-a-half contract thinking I would facilitate until they got someone else in. Fortunately for me it didn’t work out like that. We went on to win the cup in my first season. I got a four-year contract off the back of that. Second year we won the league.”

I was always fighting to keep up, to be good enough.

What makes Craig Gordon the goalkeeper he is today? There are a variety of factors but his development and improvisation as a smaller goalkeeper laid an important foundation with regards to agility and reflexes before his growth spurt which, like Peter Parker when he became Spiderman, saw him have to learn what his body could do.

“That skillset of a smaller goalkeeper is very often missing in a taller goalkeeper, who has always been able to rely on their size,” he confirmed. “I wasn’t able to do that before. I think how it evolved, how I grew up, my late growth spurt was probably the reason for having a little bit of everything.

“My birthday is the 31st of December. I was always the youngest player in my team and I was one of the smaller ones. Being small, you have to be even better to force your way into getting a game. In the youth initiative leagues with Hearts I wasn’t playing because I wasn’t big enough, wasn’t strong enough. That was difficult but also spurred me on to keep improving.

“The growth spurt was huge in such a short space of time. I always relied on my agility, on my spring. Now all of a sudden I had the height. It actually took me a little while to adjust, to grow into my body. It was almost learning what I was capable of with this new body. If I didn’t have that you never know what opportunities I might have. A lot of teams back then, and even now, will look at height as one of the main factors in choosing a goalkeeper. I was lucky that happened in the nick of time really."

You had a couple of training days with the goalkeepers but the rest of the time you were with the players or you did your own little bit on the side until they were ready for the goalkeepers, then you would join in.

When Gordon first started at Hearts there was no full-time goalkeeper coach. But during his development period he was able to work with two of the club’s most respected, popular but importantly different goalkeepers in Gilles Rousset and Antti Niemi, helping form his own style.

“Gilles had fantastic handling,” he said. “His decision making, leap for crosses, he just seemed to time it perfectly every time. Brilliant to train with, so clean and tidy.

“Then you had Antti who was much more line-based. A shot stopper, saved a lot of shots with his feet. Antti was the best one here at doing that. That was definitely something I took from him and spoke with him about. He took that from his younger days playing ice hockey.

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“He had a slightly different catching technique when the ball was coming into his chest. He would catch it almost with his elbows. That is something I have been able to learn and put into my game and I can confidently do that today.  I talked to him about it and he called it the Cobra grip [because of the placement of his hands]. Artur Boruc was very good at it as well. I was able to pick up and practice and it became natural to me because I was seeing it every day.”

He added: “You can’t copy because nobody is ever going to be exactly the same but if you can take little bits from these goalkeepers, I couldn’t have asked for much better and different styles and put it into my style and make it my own.”

The responsibility of going out on loan as a young goalkeeper, you are going into a team where they are expecting you to be up to speed straight away, competing in men’s football.

March 3, 2001 will always be a special day for Craig Gordon. It was the first time he was involved in the Hearts first-team squad, on the bench for a trip to Ibrox as back-up for Roddy McKenzie. A "daunting" but valuable experience. Yet, it would be another nine months before he was involved again. In that time period he undertook one of his most important steps to becoming the goalkeeper he is now. Loaned to Cowdenbeath as a teenager. Such a move is much more intense as a goalkeeper. It brings much more pressure than an outfield player. It, without exaggeration, can easily make or break a goalkeeping career so early on.

“A younger [outfield] player may be able to get away with a few mistakes, somebody else may be able to dig them out of a hole and they improve by being around those players,” he said. “But a goalkeeper, you need to perform. There is no bedding yourself in, making a few mistakes, it’s okay, next time. That doesn’t happen as a goalkeeper at any level.

“They’ve got win bonuses on the line, they want to get promotion, stay away from relegation. This is people’s lives we are talking about. You have that in your hands. You have to go and be prepared for men’s football straight away.

“That was the realisation, I knew after that loan spell that I could play men’s football, that I was good enough to have a career because I had never done it before. You can be as good as you want in the under-18s but can you translate that onto a pitch in a game which actually means something with a lot on the line? That was brilliant for me.”

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Tending goal at Central Park, Cowdenbeath’s element-exposed ground, which has one of the country’s smaller pitches, prepared him for Tynecastle Park and the intricacies of tweaking his game in relation to his surroundings. 

“You have to make little adjustments,” he explained. “You find the corners and crosses are on top of you a lot quicker because it is not travelling as far a distance. Your reaction time and decision making has to be spot on. The bigger pitch you get a little bit more seeing time where you can assess it and then make your decision. Long throws can be right in the box, on top of you. The shorter pitch, you are under more pressure. The ball can come over the top, all of a sudden you need to be out of the box to clear it up. The smaller pitches you tend to be in the action more, the bigger pitches can give you that little bit extra time.”

For me that was another step in my development, knowing I could play in the Premier League.

It wouldn’t be until 2003, more than 36 months after the initial first-team involvement, that he would make his competitive Tynecastle bow. By then he had made his Hearts debut, played in the sweep-it-under-the-rug defeat at Falkirk in the Scottish Cup and then he was given a chance against Partick Thistle following the team’s 5-0 loss at Celtic. It was from that moment he became the club’s No.1, playing 99 consecutive games before a red card at Falkirk in 2005. It is still his longest stretch of competitive games. 

His debut remains a staging post in his journey to becoming a No.1. A 1-1 draw at Livingston. “Phil Stamp’s curler, still remember it. Beautiful,” Gordon said. Although he couldn’t name the scorer of the Livi goal - Barry Wilson - after he was sold short by Kevin McKenna’s header, he did recall having played “really well, made a few saves”, earning the Livingston supporters' man-of-the-match award. A trophy he still has. 

READ MORE: Hearts Standard: Who we are, why we think the club deserves more coverage and our aim

He only found out he would be playing at Almondvale before boarding the bus to the stadium. It afforded him little thinking time as he scrambled to get tickets for family and friends. That involvement at Ibrox previously was an important experience for this moment, as was Willie Young’s whistle.

“I think Livingston had the ball in the net at one point from a corner which was disallowed for a foul on me,” Gordon remembered. “It wasn’t much of a foul but I am very grateful of Willie Young for giving it because you never know how your career might pan out if in the first game you get pushed over at a corner and they end up going 1-0 up. That was a little break that I got. Once you get away with that it settles you down and you go and play the rest of the game. I will say it was a foul but it was off the soft variety.”

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Are goalkeepers overprotected? Gordon makes an insightful comparison which is no doubt supported by the Goalkeepers' Union.

“You grow up to catch the ball, any contact on your arm is then going to make it very difficult to catch the ball,” he said. “I relate that to going down at a player’s feet. If I so much as touch them at all they are going to go down and it is a penalty. But if they touch my arm, it’s exactly the same thing. It should work exactly the same in both ways.”

I still don’t know how I saved that. No idea.

Over two spells, Hearts fans have been accustomed to world-class heroics from Craig Gordon. He has made the extraordinary look ordinary - whether it is a point-blank reaction, a spring across his line to tip away a shot heading for the top corner or age and size-defying saves low down.

Supporters will have their view on what has been his best. And it is the longest of shortlists. For this writer it is August 2005 at Tynecastle Park. Hearts led Motherwell 2-1. Deep into stoppage time David Clarkson struck a goal-bound effort. Remarkably it was repelled. Gordon said he still doesn’t know how he saved it. Listening to him talk it through, however, you appreciate how quickly his brain works. How quickly he considers situations. How quickly he makes decisions. One of the greatest qualities a goalkeeper can have. 

READ MORE: From Neilson to Naismith: How Hearts have changed under new management

“It was more guesswork from his body shape that he would have to go that side,” he said. “I was already prepared to go that way. Steven Pressely tried to block it. He turned his back and I could just see it coming over his shoulder just as he rotated the top half of his body. I was already half edging that side. It was just within my reach. From there it was a very quick push through my legs to get the distance to get across and keep it out. You don’t get a chance to be a last minute hero as a goalkeeper very often.”

Robbie Neilson gave Gordon a well done pat on his arm. The life - underappreciation - of a goalkeeper.

When Gordon returned to Tynecastle Park for his second spell, it was hard to imagine how his shot-stopping could have improved. It had. This is an individual that is always learning, always studying, always adapting. One such area was his ability to get across his line even quicker, while making himself a bigger target, a bigger presence, almost to the point the only explanation was he had grown extra arms.

“I remember, probably around the time I went to Sunderland, I met the Great Britain hockey goalkeeper,” he said. “We were chatting about goalkeeping and the differences between hockey and football. He was talking about how you don’t get much time to react in hockey, the ball is quicker than football. When they move across the goal they are already making themselves big but they are also trying to react a little. You are anticipating where it is going to go, you are making yourself big but you are still in a position where you can do everything. That was something that stuck in my mind from there. When you are moving across, you are trying to make a block, you can make yourself big in an area where you think it is going to go but you still have to be able to react from that even if it is a slight movement to direct the ball, a leg or foot, whatever you can get in the way. But by anticipating where it is going and making yourself big in that direction but still being able to react, that’s what I took from that and how I could put it into my game.”

I studied the other teams in Europe that played a similar style.

His return to Scotland after a long spell out of the game with injury provided one of the most inspiring comeback stories. From the possibility of not playing again to becoming a key figure for Celtic as they won trophy after trophy. Yet, it was also at the time, especially with the arrival of Brendan Rodgers, he faced one of the biggest on-field challenges: the demand to be an auxiliary outfield player. Perhaps the biggest change during his time as a professional. That has been reflected in training where goalkeepers have a “hybrid” role, joining in various passing drills. He watched and studied Manchester City and Ajax to ensure he didn’t get left behind.

“Now you are almost like a quarterback,” Gordon said. “You want your goalkeeper to have a range of passing, to be able to play short, to be able to clip the ball to full-backs. There is a lot more direction on that. When I first started playing you were kicking it as far as you can to a big striker. I had Mark de Vries up there, who was great. You kick it anywhere within 10 yards either side of him and he would hold it up or flick it on. You had Andy Kirk running through. There would be no real direction on it. You might pick out one player in the opposition to kick to because they were weak in the air but now it is much more about counter-attacking, getting the ball into the right areas, the right player. Moves are quite methodical, worked out in advance of where players should be positionally. There is a lot more to think about in terms of goalkeeping nowadays.

“When Brendan Rodgers first came into Celtic and signed Dorus de Vries, I was out of the team for five games. He showed me what he wanted. I was then able to see a goalkeeper who had played in one of his teams, what they were looking to do, what passes they were looking to play. That was a challenge and I enjoyed that. I had to learn a lot more tactically, what the whole team was looking to achieve and my role within that. That was a learning curve but I was able to do it to a good enough level that when I did get my chance five games later I was able to stay in the team for another few years.”

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Gordon's ability with the ball at his feet is an area which has been questioned, but since the 2015/16 season his passing success rate in the Premiership has dropped below 80 per cent just once (79.4 per cent in the 2021/22 campaign), while it reached a high of 89.88 per cent while at Celtic.

“It is the risk and reward of what the coach is looking for,” he said. “To bring the players in to open up the space for the better players in front of you. I thoroughly enjoyed learning that. There are some fantastic goalkeepers with the ball at their feet, look at Ederson, Andre Onana and what they do in terms of passing, how far they can kick it and how accurate they are - but they are still not going to make 100 per cent of passes in a game, or very rarely.

"I was consistently up in the 80s which was comparable to the teams playing that style. It is always something we looked at after the game with the goalkeeping coach. Looking at the pass success rate was because that was something I was going to be judged on. I still like watching the teams who play in that way.”

READ MORE: Ricardo Fuller: The story of a Hearts cult hero - 'He was just different'

Quite often I would be sick before games with worry, with nerves because it was such a pressure.

Being judged. Being the last line of defence. Being in a position where you know if you make a mistake it is likely going to result in a goal. That is a lot of pressure, especially for young goalkeepers. Gordon admitted to being sick with nerves when he was starting out in the first team. Through lived experience he has learned to deal with that pressure as best he can and with those days and nights following a mistake. Despite more resources being available to help with the mental side of the game there is a relief he is not coming through at a time where social media is so prominent.

“It’s probably the toughest part,” he said. “When I was younger, being part of an Edinburgh team where you meet up with guys you don’t really know and have that pressure of being the goalkeeper, I found that tough early on. I almost forced myself to get over that.

“Even when I first started playing at Hearts, quite often I would be sick before games with worry, with nerves because it was such a pressure. I was 19, 20 years old playing in the Premier League for my boyhood club, all my family are Hearts supporters and all my friends. If I make a mistake, I’m in trouble here. That was huge pressure. Something I only got over after many times, keeping at it, figuring out a way really.

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“Nowadays you have more sports psychologists. It wasn’t really available back then. Not to the same level it is now. I had to figure that out for myself. Maybe now there are more techniques, people can help players through that. I don’t think there is an easy way to get through that. I think everyone is going to feel similar to that, maybe not to the same extent as I did but it is something you are going to have to deal with if you are going to have a professional career where people’s livelihoods are at stake. 

“I’ve definitely got better but it still hurts, stings a little bit. Nobody wants to make a mistake. It is not nice when it happens, especially now with all the social media. I’m glad I never had that because I was nervous enough before. It is difficult to take but with experience I definitely have got better at putting bad results and bad games behind me quicker. That took a while.”

I did it before thinking ‘that is on the same leg and might hurt’.

For Gordon, the next step is taking part in first-team training regularly, to feeling confident with the explosive demands of the position and to getting back to 100 per cent. When there, he will be ready to battle Zander Clark for the No.1 spot and a return to a place between the sticks for Heart of Midlothian. 

"The plan has gone relatively smoothly,” he said, pointing out the swelling around the knee after screws had been removed when we spoke at the end of August. “I was actually looking at Manuel Neuer’s comeback, who had a double-leg break a few weeks before mine, and he’s also had some of the metal work taken out. For any normal person walking about the street I would be totally fine, to be a goalkeeper is another level. Both of us have found similar problems on the way back, I imagine because it is goalkeeper-related. So that has been interesting to read how he has been coming back. We are on a similar path. 

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“Any of the injuries I have had I’ve never thought anything about them, just get on with it and do the job. Goalkeeping tends to happen in a split second. If you go in for a challenge, making a save, you don’t have time to overthink it. It’s going to happen and you are going to act instinctively. Maybe afterwards you think ‘that could have been a problem’ but you’ve already done it so I don’t see it being a problem.

“I’ve joined in sessions with the goalkeepers and already saved a ball with my leg, just stuck it out, ball hit it. Everybody was looking at me to see if there was any reaction but it was fine.”

From his parents' living room to his primary school team. From Tynecastle Boys Club to his boyhood club. From being Britain's most expensive goalkeeper to being without a club. From winning trophy after trophy at Celtic to returning to where it started, Gordon’s inspirational journey continues, just as he continues on his quest to master the art of goalkeeping.