WHEN the player was handed the No 9 shirt at the start of the season, there was a natural urge to connect Leigh Griffiths with some of the great Hibernian strikers of old.
Although he had shone on occasion in his first full season at Easter Road, poor behaviour and inconsistent form tended to overshadow the brighter moments, such as his winning goal in the Scottish Cup semi-final against Aberdeen at Hampden Park.
Pat Fenlon’s decision to allocate Griffiths the main striker’s shirt, once worn by the likes of Lawrie Reilly, Joe Baker, Alan Gordon and Keith Wright, placed an instant burden on the young striker’s shoulders, but he has responded better than even he could have hoped, scoring 27 times to date. Fenlon, you suspect, knew what he was doing.
The manager is as delighted as anyone by Griffiths’ nomination as PFA Scotland’s player of the year, with the winner due to be announced at a dinner in Glasgow tomorrow night. He is also a contender for the young player of the year award.
When the nominations were announced last week, Hibs invited criticism by refusing to let Griffiths speak about being included on the short-lists. It was, therefore, a pleasant surprise to learn that the striker had been selected by the club to handle pre-match press duties yesterday. He is, after all, one of the men of the moment.
As he himself put it yesterday, Griffiths would have “bitten your hand off” if, along with the No 9 shirt, he’d been offered a guaranteed return of 27 goals on the eve of the season. And it could well get higher still.
The haul puts him in striking distance of the number of goals scored by Steve Cowan, who managed to net 28 times in season 1985-86. Although he isn’t someone often mentioned among Hibs’ finest strikers, Cowan formed an effective partnership with Gordon Durie, and helped John Blackley’s side to the final of the League Cup and the Scottish Cup semi-final.
With four games left to play, including a Scottish Cup final against Celtic, reaching 28 goals might seem a modest ambition for Griffiths, whose side face Kilmarnock tomorrow. The striker yesterday claimed that he wants to be the first Hibs striker to hit the 30-goal mark since both Alan Gordon and Jimmy O’Rourke achieved this feat in the 1972/73 season. While he won’t match Gordon’s amazing 42-goal haul and will have to go some to catch O’Rourke on 34, to reach 30 – while playing for a side that none would claim is the equal of the swashbuckling outfit managed by Eddie Turnbull – would in itself mark him out for a measure of greatness. And what if his eventual total also included a Scottish Cup-winning goal?
“There wouldn’t be a better way to bow out of Hibs than with a Scottish Cup winner’s medal,” he says, alert to the uncertainty surrounding his future. He is also conscious of the fact that many people expect his none-too-ordinary life – the 22-year-old is set to become a father for the fourth time this summer – to keep on blowing up in his face, despite the on-field success.
It would wrong to claim this season has been plain sailing on that front; an ongoing police investigation into a racist remark made on Twitter has seen to that. However, his behaviour has improved on the pitch, as evinced by only four bookings, only one of which was picked up this year. He credits Fenlon, whom he describes as a “father-figure”, for the turnaround, as well as skipper James McPake. He has also turned to his elder brother Paul for advice, since he was also once a professional footballer, and was on the books at Hibs briefly.
“I have tried to keep my head focused on football and not listen to what’s going on around me,” says Griffiths. “Thankfully it’s paid dividends. I’m top goalscorer for the club and I am looking to become the first Hibs player in 40 years to score 30 goals. Last season I had Garry O’Connor [beside me] and we all know what he is capable of,” he continues. “He has scored goals throughout his career. Now I have been given the No 9 shirt and there has been a greater expectancy on me to score goals. And I’ve done that.”
He has also succeeded in mending his ways a little. On too many occasions last season he was a liability. This season, however, he has been indispensable to the Hibs cause. Last year he was involved in a training ground spat, one in which he was reported to have head-butted a member of the coaching staff. Although this was strenuously denied by Griffiths yesterday and, at the time, by the club, it is clear that a clash of some sort did occur. “That was last season; it was a whole different team, and a whole different management system,” he says. “This season has been like a breath of fresh air.”
Asked to explain what he meant by the term management system, he adds: “Billy [Brown] is away. He has massive experience, having been at Hearts and then with Hibs, but Liam [O’Brien] has taken over the assistant manager’s job, and has coped very well.”
Griffiths knows that he could already be in the twilight of his Hibs career, with Wolves expected to activate the year’s extension to his contract this summer, despite having allowed him to go out on loan for the majority of his time at Molineux. Surprisingly, the striker says he has not had any contact with manager Dean Saunders since making a brief return to the club to train in January. Wolves need to win at Brighton this afternoon to stand even a slim chance of avoiding slipping down to League One. Asked whether he could imagine dropping down to the third tier of English football, Griffiths pointed out that they are not relegated yet. “They have a massive game tomorrow, and I wish the boys well,” he says. “If they go down, then we will need to see what happens.”
“I don’t know what the future holds for me,” he adds. “I am just concentrating on Killie and trying to get three points on Sunday. We have three massive games after that to go, and we will cross the bridge when we come to it.
“This is my second full season here. I have come of age since August. I have kept my head down and scored goals. I love the club. There will be no-one happier than me if we lift the cup on 26 May. If next season comes and I am still here then I will be delighted, but if I move on, I move on. I will still be a Hibs fan, no matter what.”
He admits he has some unfinished business left in England, and possibly with Wolves themselves. “You’ve hit the nail on the head,” he says, when someone suggests that he is niggled by the way events developed south of the Border. “I was on the bench once, and then was stuck playing reserve football,” he says. “Thankfully I got my move up here. But if I go back down, you can maybe say I have something to prove to the Wolves fans and the Wolves board.”
Before then, however, he has numerous targets to concentrate on. It will be a sweet, sweet sorrow if he can depart Easter Road with 30 goals, and a Scottish Cup winner’s medal around his neck.