FLASHBACK to the Scottish Cup semi-final last season and Hibernian are being humiliated by Falkirk.
Those senior players who haven’t already been hauled off by the manager – who’ll admit later he contemplated walking out at half-time like so many of the team’s fans – are looking to their talisman, their one bright Sparky. But Leigh Griffiths is caught up in the familiar Hibee Hampden malaise. When he uncharacteristically missed a second-half penalty, it would have been no surprise if his head had gone down and, with it, all hope. But good, natural, cocky, dead-eye strikers never doubt themselves. Griffiths scores two goals, the second an absolute screamer, and a comic-book comeback is complete, along with whooshing vapour-trail.
Now, which club wouldn’t fancy that?
Celtic fans, discussing whether Neil Lennon should sign the player with all their customary zeal, intensity and certainty last week, conceded the lad could play football but had serious doubts about him as a man. There was the Twitter altercation, the altercation with store security and indeed the altercation with his manager. But he was subsequently cleared of shoplifting and the story he’d headbutted Pat Fenlon at training was strenuously denied. Well, countered the Celtic moral majority, what about his private life?
Griffiths would appear to have quite complicated domestic arrangements. In the photo introducing you to his (now protected) Twitter page, four weans squeeze cheerfully on to the one armchair with a single Wispa bar between them. The fact the kids do not all have the same mother has been lapped up by tabloid headline-writers and, at half time at Easter Road during one live game, the TV cameraman who captured two of them in arms, both sporting their daddy’s shirt number. At least amid all the froth, one wag found time to joke: “If the whole extended family were to come to games it would certainly boost attendances.”
The righteousness of football fans amuses and amazes me, not least when compared with the non-righteousness of, say, film fans. In other news last week, Sienna Miller’s secret “I love yous” to Daniel Craig while she was going out with Jude Law were splashed across front pages – bumping Hugh Grant to the inside columns where the revelations about his love child were devoured by the Grande Dames of Fleet Street (Sample headline: “Hugh’s idea of commitment is to stay the night”). Now, is any of this likely to harm the box-office for the next Grant flick or Miller romcom? Quite the opposite, more like.
At some point Griffiths has been a daft laddie. Correction – probably more than once. But some of this is private and need not concern the punters. A footballer’s rococo personal life is not usually an impediment to him doing the business on the park. We might wish that players stopped and thought about things a bit more but, if he’s your ace marksman, not on the downswing when he’s hopefully about to ripple the net.
I have no interest in Griffiths’ private life in the same way I have no interest in the private lives of his moral adjudicators among the Celtic support. And, by the way, I’m absolutely sure the typical Celtic fan bears no relation to his telly comedy incarnations – Sean Lourdes III in Only An Excuse? and Burnistoun’s Jolly Boy John – even though both are utterly hilarious. But I am fascinated to see whether Griffiths can take his game and his raw, explosive talent to the next level, to the Champions League – as Lennon hopes.
Intriguingly, it’s not as simple as saying that he scores goals for fun and, therefore, he’ll bag even more with service on a plate from a better supporting cast than he had at Hibs and Wolves. At Easter Road he was often a lone wolf, foraging out wide then roaring back inside, doing it all himself, not conforming to an overall team pattern. He was perfect for a Fenlon side, making a fundamentally cautious strategy look halfway exciting using minimal manpower up front. Fenlon always maintained you had to let Griffiths do his own thing, which might sound like a cop-out, but we must credit the manager for getting the best out of the player, leading to awards and caps. Now the challenge is Lennon’s. How to use Griffiths in a very different system without curbing the waywardness which, as a footballer if not a man, has thus far proved one of his assets.
Part of the moral maze for Celtic fans probably involves the Hibs connection. They’re worried they’re getting one of those ex-Easter Road bad boys. Garry O’Connor has been no stranger to lurid headlines, so too recently Steven Fletcher. And, of course, there’s Derek Riordan, failed Celtic striker. Deek always claimed his blanket ban from entering Edinburgh’s nightclubs was unjust. He wasn’t quite banned from putting on a Celtic shirt and entering the opposition box but sometimes it seemed that way. Griffiths will be hoping for more chances than a player who was his hero growing up.
Elsewhere in football last week, fine, upstanding men were prominent. Joining Manchester United from Chelsea, Juan Mata arrived by helicopter in a smart blazer, handkerchief in his pocket, looking like a young Spanish prince and a picture of manners and civility. Also at United, current wonderkid Adnan Januzaj has been asking for extra training. But footballers come in all shapes and sizes, with all kinds of morals and peccadillos. Celtic have to work with what they can afford and, right now, Griffiths is it.
He’s come to a club and a city where the football rascal is celebrated. The nostalgic sigh at any mention of the peerless skills of Jimmy Johnstone and Jim Baxter is always followed a split-second later by a wry smile at the malarkey that came with them. Leigh Griffiths – one-man strike force or one-man Jeremy Kyle Show? If he bangs in the goals like that crazy day at Hampden he’ll soon have Sean Lourdes III and Jolly Boy John singing his name.