|Craig Gordon making a save for Celtic. (C) Graham Stuart/Action Images|
Each of these players could arguably command a blog of their own, but the focus of this one is on the third of these players - Gordon - who has been one of the big stories of the 2014/15 Scottish football season. First capped in 2004 at the age of 21, the young goalkeeper for Edinburgh club Heart of Midlothian was also part of a Hearts team that, in 2005/06, genuinely looked like they could become the first team to beat the Old Firm (Glasgow clubs Celtic and Rangers) to the league championship of Scotland's premier division since 1985. Although they fell short, The Jambos still split the two teams and won the Scottish Cup to boot. Moreover Gordon, a fine shot-stopper and mature young 'keeper, was a standout performer for club and country, winning both the Scottish Writers' Young Player (2004) and Player (2006) of the Year over this period (2004-07). He therefore caught the attention of teams in the English Premier League and, though mooted interest from Manchester United failed to materialise, he went on to sign for Sunderland for £9m in August 2007. This was a British transfer record for a goalkeeper (since broken by Man United's signing of David de Gea in 2011, though I believe Gordon's transfer fee to Sunderland is still the highest for a British 'keeper).
However, Gordon's time on Wearside turned out to be somewhat hit-and-miss, and his progress stalled. He got off to a shaky start - being briefly dropped at the end of 2007 after conceding 7 against Everton, and again in 2008/09 after a knee injury. However, for a couple of seasons under Steve Bruce, in 2009/10 and 2010/11, he hit good form and was putting in the performances and saves that had attracted Sunderland to begin with. Unfortunately, however, injuries continued to dog the player; the 2009/10 season was a broadly successful one (26 Premier League appearances) but was still interrupted by a broken arm sustained in a challenge with Tottenham Hotspur striker Jermain Defoe. A recurrence of the arm injury, combined with further knee trouble, restricted him to only 15 appearances during the following season, though this did include a good run of form for Sunderland in the run-up to the New Year, and a superb save from Bolton's Zat Knight which was voted the Best Save in the Premier League's 20 year history by fans in 2012.
|Gordon had a mixed spell at Sunderland. (C) Press Association|
What happened next is intriguing. Most players, faced with the same situation, would either come back from injury as soon as they could and hope a recurrence doesn't happen, or retire for the game with a formal announcement. Yet Gordon played the long game, staying in the game with punditry roles and coaching roles, while continuing to undertake treatment on his knee to keep the door ajar on a return to the game. Finally, a path began to emerge last season (2013/14) and he restarted training with Glasgow Rangers (by now plying their trade in the third division - Scottish League One - of Scottish football after a huge, and ongoing, financial crisis). In an interview with BBC Scotland's flagship football programme Sportscene in March 2014, he elaborated on his knee issues: "My latest problem was with my patella tendon, which has taken a couple of operations and quite a few injections [to heal]...however, I'm now able to do all the things I've done before. I've been back training for three months and I'm hoping to get a club in the near-future." Last summer, he signed for Rangers' rivals Celtic, who offered him a three-year deal. After a long absence, it was a clear foothold back into playing for Gordon.
At this point, I personally imagined he would be a number 2 keeper (to begin with at least), perhaps putting in cameo roles in cup competitions and perhaps putting pressure on the number 1 (Lukasz Zaluska after Fraser Forster's transfer to Southampton). Even this, after what Gordon had gone through, would have been a very commendable achievement (particularly if he played enough games to finish with league and cup medals), given Celtic's proud history, European presence and large fanbase. However, Gordon has rapidly exceeded these expectations. Although that knee still requires some management, Gordon has established himself quickly as Celtic's number 1, cementing his position with a series of influential performances in the Europa League (against the likes of Red Bull Salzburg, Dinamo Zagreb and Astra Giurgiu) for The Bhoys as they qualified for the tournament's knockout stages. This run of form - in some ways the best of his career - earned his a rapid recall to the Scottish national side from current manager Gordon Strachan, and his half-time appearance against England at Hampden Park ended a four year exile at international level. This weekend (February 14-15), he was again praised by his club manager Ronny Deila as his crucial late save secured Celtic a 2-1 win over St Johnstone.
Although Gordon had - in that Sportscene interview - set his sights high for his return to the game, the speed of his rise this season has even caught himself by surprise after so many years in the wilderness, as he admitted to the Scottish Daily Mail just before Christmas:
"If someone had said to me last Christmas (2013) that I'd achieved all that I have this season (2014), I'd have said they were being far-fetched. Quite a lot of things have happened and that's what I wanted. Did I think they would happen? Probably not but it's certainly something I wanted to make happen. It's all come about quicker than I thought but I put in the work and effort to try and make it possible. I've been lucky enough that things have turned around quickly for me."Indeed, if the season was to finish tomorrow, his comeback would already be an incredible and somewhat heartwarming story for British football. However, having just turned 32, hopes now turn towards making this good run last; to remain at the summit of the Scottish game (domestically and internationally) for a few seasons yet. Although goalkeepers can usually play for longer than outfield pros (up to and sometimes beyond the age of 40), it would be premature to make such lofty predictions for Gordon. However if he could remain a prominent part of Celtic's plans during the remainder of his contract, the opportunities will continue to come for him to perform on the biggest stages of Scottish and even European football (i.e. the UEFA Champions' League). Maybe, just maybe, this will encompass a return for Scotland to a major international tournament (Euro 2016) for the first time since the 1998 World Cup (which, like Euro 2016, was held in France!). Yes, for all the above to happen that knee may continue to require diligent management, and he will most probably require a sprinkling of luck. However, if Craig Gordon was to get that little bit of luck, after the efforts he's made to return to the game, very few people would begrudge him it.
 - The success in 1985 of Aberdeen came at the end of a period where the so-called New Firm, of both Aberdeen (managed at the time by a certain Alex Ferguson) and Dundee United (managed by Jim McLean) seriously challenged - and often beat - the Old Firm hierarchy in Scotland. Since then, the premier division title has somewhat reverted to type - and only ever been won by Celtic or Rangers.
 - Celtic's next match in Europe is against Internazionale of Italy - the 1st leg of which is on Thursday (February 19th). This has a strong historical resonance for the Glaswegian club, whose famous 'Lisbon Lions' became the first British winners of the European Cup (now called the UEFA Champions' League) when they beat Inter in the 1967 final in Lisbon.