Hibs legend Keith Wright admits Easter Road fans will be bitterly disappointed, but not in the least surprised, that Leigh Griffiths’ days in a green and white shirt are drawing to a close.
Supporters’ delight at seeing the Scotland star take his goals tally to 25 with a glory double as Pat Fenlon’s side staged a storming comeback to claim their place in the William Hill Scottish Cup final for a second season in succession was quickly tempered by the news Wolves boss Dean Saunders intends to invoke an option to take Griffiths back to Molineux for a further year.
Saunders sanctioned an extension to the former Livingston and Dundee hitman’s loan deal with his boyhood heroes only days after succeeding the sacked Stale Solbakken as Wolves manager in early January, but, like everyone else, he’s been impressed by Griffiths’ strike-rate and is looking for him to reproduce that form in England, be it the Championship or League One, next season.
Although bought by the Midlands club for £150,000, Griffiths made only one appearance for them before ex-Hibs boss Colin Calderwood negotiated a loan deal which has now lasted the best part of two seasons during which, Wright believes, he has developed into a striker to be feared whoever the opposition might be.
Wright said: “There’s not many players – Derek Riordan was one – who gives you a buzz whenever he gets the ball because he’s always liable to do something special. He’s a real handful and you can see defenders are running scared of him.
“It’s incredible to think he is still only 22. You have to remember when he first went to Wolves they were a Premier League side and it was a massive, massive step to go from Dundee in the First Division here to that stage. Leigh was always going to be a buy for the future, the potential was there, but over the past couple of seasons he’s improved vastly.
“And that was always going to be the danger for Hibs, the better Leigh played and the more goals he scored for them, then others would begin to take notice and if Wolves weren’t to take him back, then someone else would have been looking to get him. I’d imagine as a Hibs fan there will be a bit of Leigh who doesn’t want to leave, but he has to think of his future.
“It’s a short career and as a player, if you are offered the chance to play at a higher level and pick up a bigger wage, then you have to take it. In Leigh’s case, though, it’s a contractual thing. Wolves have an option to keep him for a further year and Dean Saunders obviously sees him adding to what he already has.
“As Hibs fans, all we can do is enjoy it while it lasts.”
Griffiths has scored exactly half of Hibs’ 40 SPL goals, with another five to his name in the Scottish Cup. With five SPL games remaining, plus the cup final against Celtic, Wright sees no reason why he shouldn’t take his total for the season to 30.
But what has impressed Wright just as much as Griffiths’ scoring record is the fact he’s managed to get so many goals while operating in the main as a sole frontman.
Wright, an SFA development officer with Midlothian Council, said: “Like most strikers I always had someone by me to work off, so I can only imagine how difficult it is to be the one up front but Leigh has been the main man for much of the season.
“The way Hibs have played, a slow build-up with a lot of passes, means you can get a bit frustrated as a striker, but Leigh has done the job he’s been asked to do and his form has pretty much held up throughout.”
“He’s hungry to score goals and what he’s added to his game at Hibs is the variety of goals he’s got. The winner against Falkirk was a typical Griffiths goal, a smashing drive from 20-odd yards and we all know how capable he is of doing that, whether from open play or free-kicks.
“His first, though, was from the edge of the six-yard box and it came after he’d missed with a penalty, but like all good strikers, he just forgot about it and made sure he tucked away the next chance he got.
“He’s also been linking up play. It was his awareness to chest the ball down to Eoin Doyle, giving him those three or four yards to get the equaliser on Saturday. Leigh has also managed to keep among the goals despite the fact Hibs haven’t been at their best recently and with six games remaining, I’m sure he’ll have 30 in his sights and what an achievement that would be.
“The most I got in a season with Hibs was 19. I missed a sitter against Dundee in the last game of the season to make it 20 and I’m still gutted about that, but, there again, I have the excuse that, unlike Leigh, I didn’t take penalties or free-kicks.”
Griffiths’ imminent departure, along with Doyle’s decision to sign a pre-contract with English League Two side Chesterfield, leaves Fenlon facing a major headache in replacing his strikeforce. Wright, though, believes the prime focus of the Hibs boss will be on getting his side ready for the cup final, an occasion which, he feels, will offer Griffiths the opportunity to take his leave of Easter Road as a hero.
While many don’t rate Hibs’ chances against Celtic too greatly, an assessment made on the basis of their dismal first-half display against Falkirk and recent form, Wright, who was at Hampden for the semi-final, refuses to be so pessimistic.
Insisting he wasn’t tempted in the slightest to join those supporters who walked out of the national stadium as Blair Alston claimed the Bairns’ third goal, Wright said: “To make the final two years in a row is a fantastic achievement. Every player wants to be part of the show game on the last day of the season. Unfortunately, although I won the Skol Cup with Hibs and was back in the League Cup final two years later, I never managed a Scottish Cup final, so I’m a bit envious of these boys.
“I’ll be there kicking every ball, just as I was in the semi-final. I was at the final last year and despite what happened, I stayed right to the end when others were leaving at 3-1 and 4-1. I didn’t enjoy watching Hearts lift the cup, but to my way of thinking, as a supporter you never walk out on your team.
“On Saturday the fans were angry at half-time, there were a lot of moans and groans and I was wondering what the response would be when the players came back out. They were cheered and clapped onto the pitch and I think then they realised they couldn’t let that support down.
“As for the final, we’ve been there all these years and not won it, but my thought has always been you’ve got to be there, that will never change. There’s five games before then and if I’d been on the pitch after those 120 minutes on Saturday, I’d have taken a huge lift from it and have my sights set on making sure in training every day and in each of these upcoming matches that the manager has me in that one to 11 on May 26.
“Then on the day, you are hoping everyone hits top form and someone, Leigh or whoever, produces something out of the ordinary.”