THERE was a fear late last year that Leigh Griffiths might be on his way to doing a Derek Riordan at Celtic. The player himself even had his concerns. In many ways – all too many, frankly – parallels could be then applied to the careers of Griffiths and Riordan. Both Hibee homeboys who scored a barrowload of goals for their beloved club; their terrific propensity for finding the net appeared undermined by a terrible habit of sparking off-field controversies.
Three months into this season Griffiths arrived at the juncture that Riordan found himself under Gordon Strachan. Ronny Deila had hardly given him a look-in because he considered the striker wasn’t sufficiently dedicating himself to his profession. Strachan said likewise to Riordan in 2007, but the player’s rank bad attitude meant his exile from the Celtic first-team became permanent, before he was packed off back to Easter Road – and the rumours last year were that Griffiths was about to do the same.
Similarities between the maverick pair end there, though. Griffiths has now cemented his senior status to the extent that he skooshed the vote for April’s player of the month award. Little wonder when two hat-tricks in the period have helped him plunder 13 goals from his past 15 appearances. The penny doesn’t seem to have dropped so much as fallen from a great height that Griffiths’ talents – more myriad than those of Riordan – can surely take him places.
“Obviously you need to go and ask him [Riordan] what happened here,” Griffiths says of his errant predecessor. “Things don’t obviously always work out the way you want them to. That could have been me. In October/November time when I wasn’t playing here, just like he had a time when he wasn’t playing here. You can maybe start thinking ‘the manager is not for me and I need to move on here’.
“That went through my mind but that is when I went to see the manager and JC [John Collins] and had a good talk with them. They told me what they wanted from me and thankfully I went away and did that and that’s why I’m playing now. You can only do so much if the manager’s not wanting to play you. Obviously you’ve got to look at other options but I went to see him to find out what I had to do to get back playing and I did it. Thankfully, as I’m playing for one of the best clubs in the world.”
It wasn’t just Deila and Collins that impressed upon Griffiths he had to get a grip. Seeing how much his four children were distressed by daddy not wearing a Celtic strip any more provided the inspiration for the 24-year-old to go to the gym “a lot” and “eat right at home to be prepared for games”. He admits he hadn’t prepared for the arrival of Deila: “I probably let myself go a bit [in the close season]. I didn’t do a lot of stuff and left it too late – until the last week when I went a few runs.”
They told me what they wanted from me and thankfully I went away and did that and that’s why I’m playing now.Leigh Griffiths
His offspring weren’t prepared for him to let go of his Celtic career as he struggled even to make the squad in the early months of a campaign that is likely to end with a Scotland call-up, before he is given the chance to lead the line for Celtic in Champions League qualifiers come July.
“I was going home and I was disappointed and hurt, angry that I wasn’t playing. The only way you can change that is to work harder. My kids were getting upset I wasn’t playing. They like to see me scoring goals. They were asking why I wasn’t playing and it was hard to give them an answer. Since the turn of the year they have enjoyed coming back to games and seeing me scoring.”
And, in his leisure time, Griffiths says he enjoys spending time with his family and looks to avoid the potential flashpoints he previously seemed magnetically drawn towards. He has an upcoming court case – he has been charged with singing an offensive song about former Hearts player Rudi Skacel in a pub with Hibs fans before a derby in March 2014 – and so has had to curb his active supporting of his former team, to an extent. For his part, Deila has said he trusts Griffiths off the field, joking that the forward’s one transgression in their season together was “eating a cake”. A reference to the scoffing of one of Tunnock’s specialities on the subs’ bench at St Mirren Park last month. If that is as bad as publicity gets for Griffiths now, he is a changed man.
“After the incident at Tynecastle was when I realised I had to knuckle down,” the Celtic striker says. “I knew I only had one chance here. From then on, until I had a talk with the manager, I wasn’t playing and I didn’t know if that was the reason why. Obviously I have knuckled down and left all that off-the-field stuff behind me. I am getting talked about for the right reasons, in the back pages now rather than the front.
“I am hardly ever out in Edinburgh. I am always spending time with my kids and if not I am preparing for games or sitting watching the TV, so it is not as if I am out on the town causing mayhem. If I am out and something happens I know that I need to walk away, because I know one bad situation and I will be out the door.
“In terms of going to Hibs games, obviously you don’t want to be going to ones at Tynecastle or Ibrox because you know it is just going to cause an uproar. Going to Easter Road you are away from everybody, away from the crowds, you sit in the directors box and you don’t get any hassle, but if you go to Tynecastle or Ibrox that is when the people are going to be on you.”
The Hibs fans were on to Griffiths when last Saturday he went to watch the second-place securing win at Falkirk in the final Championship encounter before they contest the play-offs. It should be a harmless leisure pursuit watching your team, but he has to make that so. “I came in after ten minutes. We were off for the weekend so I thought I would go and support the boys. I know a few of the boys who were playing. I am not thinking of going to any pubs any more or anything like that. I just go to the game, get out as quickly as possible, get in the car and go home.”