Jamie MacDonald could have been forgiven for cursing the relentless brilliance of a young Craig Gordon at Hearts. For a promising goalkeeper angling for his own breakthrough, he faced a Herculean task to usurp the precocious stopper.
Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. MacDonald relished every training session alongside Gordon and every word of sanguine advice he received. He describes the Scotland internationalist as an ‘inspiration’ and a ‘role model’.
And MacDonald, now 35 years of age and a mainstay in an excellent Raith Rovers side, is not merely referring to their time together as kids at Tynecastle. To this day, Gordon is still raising the bar and motivating his pal.
⛔️ What a stop from Craig Gordon.
— Scottish Cup (@ScottishCup) October 31, 2020
“Craig’s so good that there were points at Hearts when I was thinking ‘will I ever get in this team?’,” laughed MacDonald. “Then when Craig did move on, I was out on loan at Queen of the South!
“But things change quickly and thankfully I got my chance and enjoyed some amazing days at Hearts.
“I still chat with Craig a lot and he’s always been an inspiration. He’s a fantastic role model for me and, I’m sure, a lot of other keepers in Scotland.
“Growing up at Hearts, he was always the man setting the standards for me and, even now, I look at Craig and Allan McGregor, both approaching the 40-mark — and still at the very top of their game. That gives me hope that, providing I stay fit, I can keep playing for a few more years.
“Craig’s performances have been a big factor in Hearts winning the league. I’m sure a lot of people thought he would drop down to the Championship and be a bystander as they walked it. That’s not been the case at all.
“Some of the saves he has produced have been breathtaking and he’s won Hearts a fair few points.”
While he may be an experienced professional, MacDonald will join the rest of the nation as wide-eyed fans when the European Championships commence this summer — and he reckons the Scotland’s hopes would be in safe hands with Gordon between the sticks.
“I’d be delighted for Craig if he goes to the Euros as Scotland’s number one and, as a fan, I’d have no fears about that at all,” added MacDonald. “You look at his performances this year; they have been fantastic.
“He settled right back into the Scotland squad when he got back in. But that’s one thing we are blessed with up here: we’ve got no shortage of excellent keepers — so that’s a dilemma for Steve Clarke!”
A more pressing concern for MacDonald is claiming the victory over Hearts which is likely to be needed in order to secure second place, providing Dundee claim all three points against Queen of the South.
As well as securing a more manageable path in the playoffs, being recognised as the runners-up in the Championship would be a fitting reward for John McGlynn’s youthful, free-flowing Rovers outfit.
MacDonald’s relationship with McGlynn dates back 21 years, leaving him perfectly placed to articulate the coach’s evolution from functional and ‘defensive’ to courageous and attacking.
Former Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers deserves a fair portion of the credit, he contends.
“The manager [McGlynn] has been one of the biggest influences I my entire career,” continued MacDonald. “I’ve known John since I was 14 and first training with Hearts, then he was the man who gave me my first full-time contract at 16.
“He’s still the same manager in terms of his meticulousness. He lives and breathes football and gives you all the information as you could possibly need: what do we need to do? What will the opposition do?
“However, that time at Celtic working under Brendan Rodgers as a scout has changed the way he wants his team to play football. When I was younger, he was a lot more defensive and played 4-4-2 — trying to be hard to break down.
“It’s the polar opposite now. We try to play from the back and have a really exciting brand of football. The style of football has been a joy and it’s nice to hear supporters of other teams say nice things about us.
“Winning games is the vital thing, but it’s great to know you are even entertaining the neutrals. That’s a real compliment.”
MacDonald is no stranger to a dramatic denouement to a campaign and his vast knowhow will be pivotal as a relatively fresh-faced Rovers outfit, especially in attacking areas, pursue their promotion dream.
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— SPFL Trust (@SPFLTrust) October 20, 2020
MacDonald has played in three Scottish Cup finals — losing with Queen of the South and Falkirk and winning one with Hearts — and was between the sticks when Kilmarnock defeated the Bairns 4-0 in the Premiership playoff final of 2016 to stay up.
“When you are in the relegation battle there is a lot of pressure on that 11th team,” he recalled of that finale with Killie. “You are desperate to stay in the league and, with the way the playoffs are geared, there is a huge level expectation on you to do exactly that.
“The Championship teams don’t have that same pressure, but we will create our own pressure and drive from within.
“Whatever happens — whether we finish second or third — we’ll still be confident that we can do something special in the playoffs. We have surpassed all of our expectations for this season, and we don’t want to stop now.”