Leigh Griffiths phoned to ask whether he could come in to do some extra training with Hibernian this week, something that James McPake believes says everything about the change that has occurred in the player.
His very presence has given his former team-mates a lift ahead of tonight’s home League Cup quarter-final against Hearts.
McPake senses that strikers Rowan Vine and James Collins have been spurred on by the presence of Griffiths. The pair have struggled to fill the gap left by the on-loan striker’s return to Wolves in the summer. With Paul Heffernan absent for tonight’s clash, there will be an extra burden placed on whoever Fenlon opts to replace the cup-tied in the forward area this evening. So far Collins and Vine have scored only two goals between them this season.
“It will help, a top player like him coming in,” said McPake, with reference to Griffiths’ temporary return to the club this week. “He’s a great boy about the place and it will bring others on, getting to train with a guy like him.
“Guys like James Collins and Rowan Vine will be saying: ‘Hey, he’s not coming in here and showing that he’s still the top dog here – I want to be that now’.”
Derbies are the kind of games which Griffiths once relished. He will be among the spectators this evening as Hibs seek to conform to expectation and eliminate their struggling rivals from the cup. Of course, it isn’t always as simple as that. The then- injured McPake watched at home with his newly born daughter as Hearts claimed victory against Hibs at Tynecastle in August. It is one of only two games Hearts have won over 90 minutes this season.
McPake is alert to the danger. “Hearts could be in the Third Division and us in the Premier League or vice versa and it would still be a hard game to pick,” he pointed out. “If Celtic played Rangers just now, Celtic have got a far superior squad to Rangers, but it would be hard to pick just because of the type of game the derby is.” How Hibs could do with a lively presence like Griffiths to call upon. He is able to change the course of a game with a long range free-kick, and has done so before in a derby match.
Now with Wolves, Griffiths returned to East Mains after being handed a few days off by his club. McPake yesterday used the sometimes wayward striker to illustrate how manager Pat Fenlon has changed Hibs for the better since his arrival in late 2011 when, according to the skipper, division and discord ruled the dressing room. McPake was defending the manager after hearing Hibs had been accused of underachievement by Hearts assistant manager Billy Brown yesterday.
McPake was brought in by Fenlon in January last year as the manager sought to bring some leadership back to the dressing room. Hibs were successful in their aim to avoid relegation, something that had become a very real possibility after the poor start to the season under Colin Calderwood. Fenlon also led Hibs to the final of the Scottish Cup, although McPake acknowledged that a season of some promise ended on a particularly sour note against Hearts at Hampden.
“I think the manager’s done a great job since he came in to the club,” argued McPake. “I’ve seen from the very first day I walked in a dramatic change off the field. I saw a horrible dressing room when I first walked in on my first day.
“It was split and there were people not pulling the same day. After a week I thought this club could be relegated and that’s the truth.
“We managed to get out of it,” he continued. “The manager’s job was to keep us in the SPL and he did that and reached the Scottish Cup final, although it ended terribly. Away from the football side of things, he’s brought in his own people. We’ve got two new physiotherapists who are top class, we’ve got a new masseur who the players all use, we’ve got great facilities – everything is there.
“Everything has to be right at the club before the team can be good and it wasn’t at the time. In my opinion that is the main reason for the team underachieving. It was all wrong.
“The following season the aim was to finish in the top six. If the referee had seen the ‘goal’ in the derby that Leigh Griffiths scored that was six yards over the line we would have finished in the top six. So we weren’t that far away. This season we want to push on. The manager’s taken us to two cup finals.”
McPake believes Griffiths would agree with his contention that Fenlon has been a force for good. The striker has since earned international recognition after Fenlon persisted with him, despite on-pitch indiscipline combined with off-the-field problems.
“The amount of times we’ve heard that if it wasn’t for Leigh Griffiths then Pat Fenlon wouldn’t have his job has been frightening,” said McPake. “But turn it round on its head and if it wasn’t for Pat Fenlon where would Leigh Griffiths be right now? I could have brought Leigh with me today as he’s been in training with us and he would sit and say the exact same thing.”
McPake referred to Griffiths’ keenness to join in with training this week. “It shows a great turnaround in him because the Leigh Griffiths of three years ago, no way would he be asking to come in and train with us.
“When I got the text I said: ‘That’s not really him, is it? Somebody’s at the wind-up!’ But he’s been involved – not too much today but he played in the wee games yesterday, alongside the guys who hadn’t played at the weekend, and by all accounts he was outstanding.
McPake even suggested putting a disguise on Griffiths and sending him on in any case tonight, given that is so near to Hallowe’en. “Maybe we could put a beard on him and play him,” he said. “It’s been good having him about.”
“Every Hibs fan in the world wishes he could play tomorrow night. If we could sort out some kind of two-day loan, it would be perfect. It was sad to see him go but I wanted him to get away, get out of Edinburgh. As much as losing him as a player affected us as a team, for his career, he had to get back down south. It’s probably similar to the case of Robert Snodgrass, who I saw in exactly the same way. Robert had to get out of Glasgow – but look at him now.
“In my opinion, Leigh will go as far. He will get to the Premier League one day. But the biggest thing was getting out of Edinburgh.”