The £9m arrival of Craig Gordon from Hearts on the eve of the 2007-08 season really made you feel that ‘this was it’. We were back.
While Darren Ward and Marton Fulop had done an admirable job the season (no great feat following the performances of ‘Calamity Kelvin’ the season before, Schmeichel – the dog from Coronation Street, not Kasper or Peter – would have done better) it was clear a new number one would be preferable to accompany us on our return to the top flight.
Keane, of course, appreciated just how important a good keeper was, having played in front of Schmeichel (Peter, not the dog) for seasons at Manchester United. And, Brian Clough – who Keane seemed to take more from than long-term manager Alex Ferguson – always attributed Forest’s early success, in part at least, to his signing of Peter Shilton.
A great goalkeeper’s worth their weight in gold – and we’ve recently seen the consequences of having some not-so-good ones (Messrs Steele and Camp, I’m referring to you). It’s not pleasant.
So it was with eager anticipation that we headed to the Stadium of Light for the season opener against Spurs with Scottish international Craig Gordon lining up in nets. He’d turned down a move to Villa to sign for the lads on a five-year deal from Hearts, and at £9m had set the British transfer record for a keeper.
On completing his move from Hearts, Gordon said:
It was great to finally be allowed to speak to Sunderland and come down and meet the manager and see the facilities we have here. I’m delighted to have finally signed. It’s really geared up to being a massive club and once I spoke to the manager my mind was made up. We sat down with a cup of tea and he was very clear on his visions and what he expects from his players.
He’d evidently impressed in training, as Keane later recalled in his autobiography.
Craig is the only player I’ve seen being applauded off the training pitch, in all my career - by his own team-mates. It was after his first training session. Nobody could score against him. We needed a number one goalkeeper; we were in the Premiership. ‘Aim high.’ He was amazing.
The fixture against Spurs was the first Premier League game of the season, and Gordon was among four debutants in the starting XI for the lads. McShane, Ethuhu and Richardson also made their first Sunderland starts while another new signing, Cardiff’s Michael Chopra, was on the bench.
Sunderland: Gordon, Whitehead, Nosworthy, McShane, Wallace, Edwards, Etuhu, Yorke, Richardson, Murphy, Stokes. Subs: Ward, Miller, Collins, Chopra, Connolly.
The Spurs starters included future Sunderland players Chimbonda, Kaboul, Malbranque and Tainio, while Jermain Defoe and Darrren Bent were both on the bench.
Tottenham: Robinson, Chimbonda, Gardner, Stalteri, Kaboul, Jenas, Zokora, Malbranque, Tainio, Berbatov, Keane. Subs: Cerny, Rocha, Huddlestone, Defoe, Bent.
In a tight, tense game, chances were at a premium – Berbatov forced a routine save from new signing Gordon, while Daryl Murphy scuffed a good chance for the home team, striking Robinson’s legs at the far post.
Sputs had a shout for a penalty when Berbatov – put clear by Malbranque – went past Gordon only to be stopped by a Whitehead tackle; the referee not seeing enough to award a spot kick.
Bent and Defoe both came on as Spurs looked to take the game to the lads, but it was the home team that came closer – new signing Dickson Etuhu curled one past the post and later failed to control Wallace’s free kick with the goal at his mercy.
A draw was looking likely. Gordon had enjoyed a comfortable debut behind a defence superbly marshalled by Paul McShane. (Prematurely, we thought, we’d found a worthy replacement for Jonny Evans, who we’d failed to re-sign on loan. Oh, how little we knew.)
Of course, a draw was looking likely until the game’s dying embers. Deep into stoppage time, Ross Wallace found himself free on the right wing; cutting back onto his favoured left foot he put the ball into the box. The ball eventually found its way to the feet of Chopra, who finished cooly to give Sunderland the three points, sending almost 44,000 into raptures and securing a position at the top of the table – for a few hours, at least.
Gordon only played 88 league games in five seasons for Sunderland, and was a player who seriously divided the crowd at the time.
I remember an old fella two seats along from me wouldn’t have a bar of him after September – ironic cheers anytime he did something routine, scathing abuse when he didn’t come off his line.
A £9m keeper should be invincible, seemed to be the train of thought.
For my part, I thought he was a cracking keeper who, at 24, was still in the very early stages of his career and had so much potential. His shot-stopping was superb, his temperament flawless. Yes, I’d have liked to have seen him come for more crosses and perhaps be a bit more commanding, but I’m sure that would have come.
Unfortunately, he didn’t get the chance to show too much as injuries plagued his time on Wearside. The following season he was troubled by a knee injury, and after regaining fitness a challenge from Jermain Defoe in 2009 broke the keeper’s arm. While it appeared to be a relatively straightforward injury, Gordon suffered a number of complications after returning from the initial break – it needed summer surgery and shortly after his subsequent return to training it went again.
After finally recovering from his arm injury he did his knee and ultimately that was that – he was released at the end of his contract.
It looked like, at the age of 29, he’d retired. Gordon spent two years out of the game before enjoying a swansong at Celtic, playing over 150 times in six seasons before returning to Hearts in 2020.
Aged 38, Gordon is club captain at Hearts and their first-choice keeper, and was on the bench for Scotland at the Euros.
He’s a tremendous goalkeeper who was seriously hampered by injuries at SAFC – who knows what his career trajectory would have been had he been able to remain fit throughout his time at the Stadium of Light.