When new Sunderland goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin made the move from Burton Albion to Heart of Midlothian last summer few in Scotland had heard of the goalkeeper. Fewer still knew he was Scottish.
A little over 10 months after signing for the Edinburgh club to little fanfare, McLaughlin was making his Scotland debut at the famous Azteca Stadium as Scotland fell to a 1-0 friendly defeat. Despite the raft of call offs it demonstrated how far he had progressed in the eyes of his home nation.
What was more, it was felt that his national team debut was long overdue. Such were his performances for Hearts, it was hoped he would have been given minutes on the pitch in the March double header which saw Scotland lose to Costa Rica before winning in Hungary.
One of the concerns for Scotland 12 months ago were the ages of the country’s goalkeepers, former Sunderland stopper Craig Gordon, Allan McGregor and David Marshall. They have 117 caps between them but an average age of 34.7.
There was a lack of a truly outstanding candidate, someone who could potentially reach their level, progressing behind them. Jack Hamilton, Zander Clark and Jordan Archer were the next batch but none have excelled, at international or club level.
Sunderland fans witnessed Archer in a laughable display of goalkeeping at the Stadium of Light when the Black Cats drew 2-2 with Millwall. Something similar was seen when Archer started in Scotland’s defeat to Peru.
Then Scotland discovered McLaughlin. Unassuming, dependable and commanding.
Last summer, one of the key positions Hearts required strengthening was goalkeeper, following the unsteady and nervy displays of the aforementioned Hamilton. His confidence had been shattered, not helped by a demanding judgemental home support. One slight mistake, a mere miskick would act as a catalyst for more.
The position needed someone with a cool exterior and steely interior. From the moment he arrived in Edinburgh, McLaughlin exuded those qualities and over the season became recognised as one of the best goalkeepers in Scotland. Some would go as far to say he was the best performing No 1 in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Sunderland fans will know all about Craig Gordon and his ability to produce saves which require scraping of jaws from the floor in the aftermath. Yet injury cost him a large chunk of the season and prior to that he had his moments where he looked fallible.
McLaughlin was unflappable. An glaring error against Partick Thistle proved to be the exception to the rule in what was a trying season for the club as they failed to compete for Europe and performed poorly in cup competitions.
Aside from the emergence of talented youth players, the club’s defensive solidity was one of few positives. A club record eight games without conceding a goal was a key moment from the season. It took until the 95th minute of the ninth match before McLaughlin’s goal was breached.
The 30-year-old was key to such a robust defensive run. If opponents found their way through a stuffy Hearts defence they would be confronted by this imposing presence. Strikers could have been forgiven for thinking they were facing this agile windmill, such his McLaughlin’s height and reach.
He has no clear weakness. Despite his size he is confident with the ball at his feet and can kick cleanly, short and long. While he also acts as a pressure valve when it comes to crosses and set pieces, commanding his box to take the pressure off by claiming the ball or on rare occasions punching.
But he is at his best when keeping the ball out of the goal cleanly. Goalkeepers, understandably, are keen to parry and push shots away such is the mistrust in modern footballs. However, McLaughlin is confident enough to not only save the ball but hold it as well.
When he is required to parry, he always makes sure to put it into safe areas.
Strangely, as part of a team who finished in the top-half of the league, no goalkeeper faced more shots than McLaughlin, yet he was way out in front for saves in the Premiership.
McLaughlin has spent most of his career in the English leagues, with nearly 100 appearances at League One level.
His Scottish sojourn has only improved him as a player and he now arrives at the Stadium of Light an international.