GIVEN the season he has enjoyed, the idea of Leigh Griffiths being verbally slaughtered at half-time of the Scottish Cup semi-final might seem harsh; the fact that he sat there and took it, astonishing.
“He was getting shouted at,” says captain James McPake. “All of us were at some point. People might think that if anyone were to shout at Leigh Griffiths he would have the right to shout back but he sat there and took it on the chin, took it as a challenge. He came out and won us the game in the second half. His team were three goals down and he wanted to keep us in the cup and he did.”
Griffiths has scored 28 goals this season but on that day at Hampden he squandered a chance early in the game, then missed a header and a penalty. “That would finish some strikers’ season,” adds McPake, “but it shows the mentality of the boy that on such a big stage he could miss chances like that and come back to score two.”
For those who have shared parts of Griffiths’ journey, it’s no surprise that he has evolved into the SPL’s Player of the Year, no shock that he is battering in goals, rising to occasions and often shouldering the burden of winning matches almost single-handedly.
“The thing about Leigh is that he has always loved the big games and if he told you he was going to go out and get two goals in a cup final, more often than not he would,” says Tam Currie, the man who coached him from the age of six until 12 at boys club Leith Athletic. Even back then he was rattling goals in. And even back then it was a diversion from the trouble that could assail him in his personal life.
“With quite a few of the laddies I was like a social worker to them as well as their coach,” says Currie. “A lot came from broken homes and football was their escape. Leigh was one of those. I would sometimes pick him up and take him to training and he was always waiting, watching at the window, desperate to get to training or get to a game.
“At the start it was just wee seven-a-side games but eventually it was full-size games and he just loved playing football.”
Griffiths had been combining his spell with Leith Athletic with attending coaching at Hibs but when his temperament was questioned and he was asked by Hibs not to return, it was Currie who helped pick him back up and helped him to channel his desire to win in a more constructive manner.
“I think that [rejection by Hibs] upset him and his dad but he didn’t stay down for long. Of course there was a bit of boyish daftness but he was also a kind laddie. I’m still friends with his dad and I saw him [Leigh] last night and showed him the photo album I’ve got from back then and he seemed happy to see it. There’s so much pressure on him – an unfair amount – but he seemed really relaxed. He has always been confident. There was never any sign of nerves in big games. He loves the big games and that’s because he just enjoys going out and playing football. That’s where he is most relaxed.”
From Leith Athletic, Griffiths had a brief spell at Inch Colts before moving on to Hutchison Vale, where he stayed until he was 16. There he got the support and freedom he needed as he continued his development. “He was a special talent even back then,” said Hutchison Vale coach Tam Smith.
“I’ve been at the club 27 years and he was the most natural goalscorer I have ever worked with. If he took 20 shots, you could almost guarantee that 19 of them would be on target. And nothing fazed him.”
Smith recognised quickly that Griffiths needed to take a step up.
“He was playing for the U17s when I got him trials at Middlesbrough and Leeds and both wanted to offer him something but he didn’t want to go down to England at that time so I called a few of the clubs up here.”
Hearts, Hibs, Falkirk and Dundee United had a look at him, but all decided that he wasn’t for them. “Eventually I called Paul Connelly, who was coaching at Livingston, and he questioned whether he would be good enough but after playing for us on the Saturday and scoring three goals, he took part in an U19 game on the Sunday for Livingston, scored at least one and impressed Paul and the manager [John Robertson].”
That’s when Griffiths got his first chance as a professional. “To be honest, in those early days Leigh needed handling properly, he needed a lot of guidance,” says Smith. “He had the talent, he just needed to grow up a bit mentally and he needed somewhere where he could express himself. He doesn’t respond to being boxed in or pigeon-holed, he’s a bit of a free spirit on the pitch. It was probably better for him that he stayed in the youth ranks so long because he was allowed to express himself in a way he might not have been allowed to do it he’d gone to a professional club too soon.”
“He’s worked hard to get where he is,” adds Smith. “He had the natural talent but he worked at it too. The people who have got the best out of him realise what makes him tick and leave him to get on with it.”
“Leigh does have a reputation but it’s unfair,” says McPake, who first joined forces with his team-mate when they were both at Livingston. He has been credited with helping steer Griffiths, watching over him on the pitch and offering advice away from it. The silly gestures and once-explosive temperament which threatened to overshadow all Griffiths’ good work on the field have been tempered. “I’m not so much his minder,” states McPake, “I feel like his friend. I saw him come in at 16 when he had already been released from Hibs. For any 16-year-old that’s hard. I’m sure I was the captain at Livingston at the time and maybe that was the reason I tried to help him. I feel I’m someone he trusts and I don’t think a lot of people can say that.
“I’ve always felt sorry for him because he has had the image of a bad boy, although I do think that’s changing a bit. He’s just a bit silly, there is not a bad bone in his body.”
Having debuted for Livingston at 16, Griffiths was sold on to Dundee three years later after averaging more than a goal every two games. There he upheld that ratio. “It was obvious from the start that he had an awful lot of raw talent,” says former team-mate Rab Douglas. “He was a bit of a maverick, a buzz bomb who could light up games, even in training, and having played against him this season I can see he has matured a lot as a footballer.
“Back then he was a daft wee ruffian but he got goals and it was obvious that he loves football. He wanted to get involved in the free-kicks, corners, everything, and even when the club was going through tough times financially he wasn’t one of the players who let it get to him. I don’t think it is like a job to him, which made him an asset around the club, as well as a footballing asset the club could sell on to help keep things going.”
Having tried his hand down south with Wolves, it is on loan back at Hibs where Griffiths seems at his most relaxed since his youth football days. He picked up a calf knock in training on Friday but is still expected to start today. Anything shy of a plaster cast and crutches is unlikely to stop him.
“When they came to the club guys like Tim Clancy and Alan Maybury asked ‘what’s this guy like at training? Is he big time?’ Even my wife asked me that question,” says McPake. “But he’s quiet, he sits in his wee corner, gets his stuff on, gets any physio work he needs and then when he goes out there and ‘Boom!’, he just bursts into life and is the best player on the training ground every single day. It’s as if he is a kid again playing down the park.”