THERE are three dates between now and the end of the season that are of huge importance to the future of Pat Fenlon and Hibs.
Two of them are today’s Edinburgh derby and the Scottish Cup final against Celtic on 26 May. But the third – and possibly the most important – might not be so obvious. This Thursday Leigh Griffiths and his representatives are due to meet with the Wolves hierarchy to discuss the striker’s future.
The fact that nobody at Hibs can control the outcome of a meeting taking place many miles away in the Black Country will be causing Fenlon some sleepless nights. Griffiths, below, has become the main man for Fenlon and, without his 27 goals this season, Hibs would surely have failed to reach their second straight cup final and could well have been struggling to maintain their SPL status.
Fenlon would have been under serious pressure, so the prospect of Hibs lining up next season without the newly crowned PFA Scotland Young Player of the Year will be enough to bring the Easter Road manager out in a cold sweat. Thursday’s meeting is vital because Griffiths is crucial to any chance Hibs have of escaping the malaise that has engulfed the club in recent seasons.
So what are the chances of Griffiths lining up in green and white next season? And what is the best option for the striker?
The common perception in today’s game is that the player has all the power but, in this case, the situation could be out of Griffiths’ hands, with Wolves able to extend his contract by a further 12 months if they so wish. The dilemma for Griffiths is whether he wants to play for a club for who he has yet to start a match, who are without a manager and who have just been relegated to the third tier of English football. I would suggest he shouldn’t and that he should look to stay with Hibs for another year at least.
I found myself in a similar position a few times while playing in the SPL, when I had to decide whether to stay at home with family and friends, building on achievements over previous seasons in Scotland, or move back down south and face different challenges with greater financial reward. On one occasion I was coming to the end of my contract at Hibs and travelled to meet Tony Pulis at Stoke. I remember sitting outside the Britannia Stadium with Eoin Jess, who I played with at Nottingham Forest, and saying to him something just didn’t quite feel right. His advice was not to go through with it if I wasn’t sure, so I came back up the road and decided it wasn’t for me.
I always looked for a balance between life on and off the pitch and it’s why I decided against moving away on a number of occasions. If I didn’t feel I would be happy and comfortable, then I wouldn’t be able to play to my best.
Now, if Griffiths were to replicate his form next season with Hibs, then he’d have a number of clubs down south chasing him and he’d surely become a regular in the Scotland squad. Would that happen if he were in League 1 where, in my experience, the standard of football is questionable and he is out of sight and out of mind as far as the Scotland manager is concerned?
Money will be a factor. He will be able to earn more at Wolves than at Hibs and however much people want to think it shouldn’t influence decision-making, it will. Griffiths must think about his family. Does he sacrifice the comfort of home for more money? Or does he turn down the cash to continue the good work at Hibs? He can seek advice from others but, ultimately, he needs to do what feels right for him.
Today’s game will hopefully bring more excitement than previous derbies this season, which have been devoid of much incident. This could be due to the fact that Fenlon has set his side up defensively to avoid any danger of a repeat of the Scottish Cup final drubbing and that John McGlynn never seemed comfortable enough in the Hearts hot seat to be able to set out his team in an expansive manner.
So what has changed? Well, Gary Locke is now in charge at Tynecastle and his first big decision was to get the team playing more positively. He quickly showed he was his own man by putting some more experience back in the team regardless of what others behind the scene at the Riccarton training ground HQ may have wanted, which was exactly the right move.
By doing this it he has given the club’s talented youngsters more help and guidance on the pitch and taken some of the responsibility off their shoulders.
It can be suffocating for young players when the team lacks experienced leadership and it all falls to them.
The build-up to my Premiership debut for Manchester United away at Middlesbrough showed me the importance of experienced players. I had a number of established players settling my nerves with words of guidance ranging from Nicky Butt’s advice ‘to make sure you smash Paul Ince before he tries to do you’, David Beckham’s ‘play your own game, that’s what has got you here’ to more specific game-related tips. They all helped to put me at ease. They knew what I was going through having been there themselves years earlier. That’s what experience can bring.
This was one of the problems earlier in the season at Hearts when it seemed that no matter what, youngsters and youngsters alone were going to be selected, which ultimately does nobody any good.
Today’s match may be a bottom six game but remember this is the most glamorous fixture in our top flight right now and there’s plenty riding on it. Hibs are looking for some momentum going into the cup final and Hearts are desperate to finish above their arch rivals.
Let’s hope we get a match befitting of the occasion and remember Hibs fans, pencil Thursday 16 May into your diary and cross your fingers, for it could be a date with destiny.