IT MIGHT be the national drink, but it no longer provides energy to the man with designs on becoming the nation’s first-choice striker again. Leigh Griffiths has credited his recent resurgence with a new healthy lifestyle. He has, he claims, sworn off fizzy drinks, specifically Irn-Bru.
It is unlikely that Griffiths will now be selected to feature in the next campaign to promote a product famously “made in Scotland from girders”. He might already be tied up in any case, given he provided such widespread exposure to Tunnock’s in April after eating one of their tea cakes while sitting on the bench for Celtic against St Mirren.
Manager Ronny Deila laughed this off at the time, seemingly already satisfied with Griffiths’ efforts to reform his eating and drinking habits. The player himself credits this new outlook with helping revitalise his form and resuscitating his Scotland hopes, ahead of the forthcoming games against Qatar and Republic of Ireland.
“My body fat probably wasn’t up to his standards,” conceded Griffiths yesterday, speaking at the Peter Vardy Vauxhall showroom in Edinburgh, bottle of water conspicuously placed beside him. “I’ve never been the fattest of guys over the years. I’ve tried to work on keeping my body fat down. I’m trying to eat the right foods. I was a sucker for fizzy juice but now it’s all about diluting juice and water.
“I’ve got a sweet tooth for Irn-bru,” he added. “Now I’ve stopped drinking that and you see me with a bottle of water.”
Two years ago, Griffiths was about to make what many interpreted as the great leap forward in his career. Fresh from a season in which he had scored 28 times for Hibs while on loan at the club from Wolves, he was selected to lead the line for Scotland in a qualifier against Croatia, then ranked No 4 in the world by Fifa (if we can believe anything Fifa says).
He has, however, made only one international start since. He was not even named in a squad for over a year. It is probably fair to conclude Griffiths’ career has stalled in an international sense.
But, on the club front, it has improved to the point that he is considered Celtic’s primary striker, hence the reason for him being recalled by Strachan.
The Scotland manager could hardly ignore someone who has struck 16 times since the turn of the year. He has, though, still to break his duck for Scotland. Where better to do this than Easter Road, where Scotland host Qatar on Friday. It is, after all, the ground to which this Hibs supporter is drawn by instinct when not on duty for Celtic.
“I’ve been back as a spectator but to hopefully play a part of the game will be nice,” he said, of his imminent return to Easter Road, where he has not played since his penultimate game for Hibs, against Dundee in May 2013.
Nearly three weeks later he lined up for Scotland in the Maksimir stadium and contributed to a memorable 1-0 win over Croatia. While he has sealed a move to Celtic in the interim, winning two championships and a League Cup winner’s medal, it is only recently he has truly gained the momentum lost since those free-scoring days with Hibs.
As recently as September Delia, who had inherited Griffiths from predecessor Neil Lennon, was questioning the player’s off-field habits. He was certainly a long way from fulfilling Deila’s preference for “24-hour athletes”.
The manager dropped him from the matchday squad and once sent him to Sunderland at late notice to play in a reserves match, something Griffiths now suspects was a test.
“I remember that well,” he said yesterday. “We had a team meeting on a Wednesday and the manager pulled to me to the side after it and said there was a game the next day. He asked whether I wanted to play in it but that I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to. He gave me the option of training with the first team.“I told him that I would play because I needed games,” he continued. “I needed match sharpness so I went down with the lads and we did really well to get a result. I would always play if he asked me,” he added. “IGoing down to Sunderland helped me.”
Griffiths takes understandable pride in having turned his Celtic career around. He sensed some doubt that he could, from his own manager among others. “It was just a feeling I had when we had a chat in October,” he said. “He [Deila] wanted me to change. But by the way he was looking I guessed he was thinking that he wanted me to change but didn’t think I had it in me. I went out of that room determined to get my place back in that team.”
He accepts there is still a bit to go before he can truly say he has proved Deila wrong. “It can still get better,” he accepts, when asked what his body-to-fat ratio is now. Now, there is Scotland to focus on, which is why he was slightly distracted when watching the Motherwell v Rangers play-off final on Sunday.
As a Celtic player, he would have liked to have seen the return of the Old Firm derby, particularly since he scored in his only one to date – February’s 2-0 League Cup semi-final win. But he isn’t fussed by the outcome, describing it as justice done for Motherwell.
“As Celtic player and a fan you want Old Firm games but over the two legs Motherwell showed why they are still in the Premiership and Rangers aren’t,” he said.
“We can only beat who is in front of us, whether it was Rangers or Motherwell. It is Motherwell now. We congratulate them and we will see them next season.”