I can’t remember if it was the first time Leigh Griffiths was reprimanded by the referee for ranting at his own fans that I wondered about his future in the game, or whether it was the second time. Then again, it could have been the third.
Three times he was pulled up for venting his frustration at the stands. The supporters were getting on the team’s backs; more specifically they were getting on his back. A belting shot with his left foot would cannon off the hoardings behind the goal. The fans would groan and, to use a phrase Griffiths would well understand, he’d go radge.
This was the boyhood Hibernian fan on loan at Easter Road showing his immaturity and simply trying too hard. It was easy to make the snap judgement that, with Hibs not being bold enough to purchase just their very latest wild-boy striker outright, he would bounce around different clubs, talented but undisciplined, unable to settle or screw the nut.
But look at Sparky now. Celtic stand on the brink of Champions League qualification, a huge moment for Scottish football, and it’s a large part down to his performance against Hapoel Beer-Sheva and his terrific goals.
So he runs in celebration towards the dugout where like a motorist on a dark night suddenly confronted by undipped headlights, he’s dazzled by Brendan Rodgers’ teeth and tan. But Griffiths keeps on going because his confidence is high and we all know how strikers crave it like oxygen and he leaps into the arms of his new manager, the one who’s proclaimed him a £15 million talent.
But, while Celtic fans are in such a hurry to consign the interesting but failed Ronny Deila experiment to history as they acclaim their shiny new king, shouldn’t they at least be acknowledging the part his predecessor played in Griffiths’ development?
Was it not Deila, pictured right, who convinced Griffiths of the benefits of running naked right through a Norwegian winter? OK, I jest slightly, but while few of Celtic’s players would feel that this is the time to be talking about any good there was in the Deila era, footballers always preferring to praise the man giving them a start right now, Griffiths would surely admit that Deila was a big help in getting him to where he stands today.
Among Hibs fans few recall Pat Fenlon’s reign with much fondness, but Griffiths was one of its few successes and he’ll speak up for the man. Deila saw a player with undoubted talent who needed better habits and a higher grade of fuel. Within the Deila experiment there was a Griffiths experiment and it undoubtedly worked. Griffiths scored 40 goals last season, the most by a man in hoops since Henrik Larsson, and while the campaign resulted in the most ho-hum title in Celtic’s history, he was an irresistible choice for player of the year.
Hibs fans witnessed a player of electric pace with a thundercrack left foot but during his two seasons at Easter Road can’t recall him ever heading a ball. He started doing that under Deila and his first goal on Wednesday night, a powerful header from a run begun on the edge of the box, not merely a poacher’s flick, demonstrated the faith he has in this recent addition to his box of tricks.
The Easter Road reaction to his second goal would have been: “What took you guys so long to realise he had a free-kick in him?” This was well enough known in the rest of football and especially among Hearts fans who’d witnessed Griffiths scoring from 25 yards in the last Edinburgh derby in which he played, to say nothing of shaking the crossbar from a similar distance in an earlier capital clash only to have the strike disallowed even though TV showed the ball to have bounced two feet over the line.
Griffiths went to Celtic as the leading dead-ball expert in Scotland but wasn’t allowed anywhere near free-kicks. He had to defer to the established players which is what all men must do when they join from the provinces. He’ll have stood back and watched Kris Commons and Charlie Mulgrew’s efforts and known he could do better and Wednesday’s hit was sublime.
But maybe even better than his own goals in Celtic’s thrilling victory was his contribution to Tom Rogic’s opener, an artful chipped pass from the middle of the park to Scott Sinclair. At Hibs, Griffiths was the lone striker who preferred to do everything by himself. Maybe in that team he had to create his own goals. Now, though, you see much more interplay from him. Deila can surely take some of the credit for that and now Rodgers must develop the player further.
There are signs the new manager is making a difference already. The players queued up on Wednesday to declare themselves stronger both physically and mentally to come through testing periods in games such as when Hapoel scored two goals in two minutes early in the second half. “We could have crumbled and I think a year ago we would have,” said Griffiths.
It wasn’t a completely serene and effortless progression for Griffiths under Deila. Some still doubted his ability to produce his best in the biggest games – semi-finals and finals domestically, European ties and when given his chance by Scotland. A year ago, indeed, he couldn’t help Celtic overcome Malmo. His most memorable contribution to that qualifier was to knee an opponent in the goolies, proving that the radge in him hadn’t been exorcised completely.
But he hangs in there. New strikers turn up at Celtic Park posing a challenge to Griffiths and he sees them off. On Wednesday he outshone Rodgers’ big signing Sinclair. It’s going to be fascinating to see where the manager can take Celtic, and where he can take Sparky.