Leading the line for Scotland can be back-breaking work; literally so, as Celtic forward Leigh Griffiths discovered during the 1-0 victory over Slovenia in the World Cup qualifying tie at Hampden last month.
Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak caught the 26-year-old with a strategically placed knee as he collected a cross towards the end of the first half, leaving the striker with what turned out to be a hairline fracture of the spine.
Griffiths had earlier struck the woodwork twice, hitting the bar from point-blank range when it seemed he was certain to mark his 12th appearance for his country with his first goal.
He attempted to play on but broke down and was forced to leave the field after 50 minutes. To make matters worse, Scott Brown, pictured, his captain for club and country, added insult to injury by accusing him of feigning injury.
“I tried to run in the tunnel, jog towards the pitch but that’s when it was sore,” he said. “Broonie was actually giving me a bit of stick, saying that I was faking injury a bit because of the two chances I’d missed.
“Then, when I crumpled to the floor, he said: ‘Come on, we need you; we’ve got 45 minutes to go’ and he was still giving me stick the following Monday and Tuesday but his face dropped when he found out I’d fractured a bone in my back.
“He quickly apologised but, to be fair, he’s still giving me stick, using that video of Mike Tyson where he claims he’s broken his back. Fortunately, it was one of those ones that healed quickly. When you hear the words ‘fracture’ and ‘back’ it’s always difficult to take, but the physio told me I’d be back quicker than if I had a calf injury.
“So I tried to do my rehab as quickly as possible and, thankfully, it settled down really quickly. It was the fourth bone up from the base of my spine but, to be honest, that wasn’t the sorest bit. The worst part was the nerves; they were giving me spasms and causing the most pain.
“I wasn’t able to sleep or drive for the first five or six days because it was really sore but then it started to ease off and, as my rehab progressed, the muscles expanded and I soon managed to do everything normally.”
Griffiths absolved Oblak of blame for his part in the incident, claiming it could have happened to any forward.
“He kneed me in the back but he won the ball fairly,” he said. “I suppose he could have jumped with his leg straight but I spoke to Craig Gordon and he said goalkeepers take these opportunities when they can – not to injure someone but to make their mark and show opponents that they are there.
“The biggest disappointment was that I was angry at myself at half-time, especially for the first chance I missed; any other time that goes in the back of the net. The other one, where I hit the post, I can’t really hit that ball any better. I did everything right but it was just one of those things.”
Griffiths is now fit again and anxious to be involved during the run-in to what could be a momentous campaign. He is in the squad for tomorrow’s game against Ross County at the Global Energy Stadium and would love to celebrate his return with a goal.
“It’s been a frustrating season but it’s not about me or any individual – it’s about the squad and, as a squad, we’ve done really well,” he claimed. “The gaffer has stressed to us that he wants to make his own mark here. He doesn’t want to live off the back of others’ achievements. There have only been three Celtic teams that have won the treble in the club’s history, so we realise how difficult a job it is but the boys are confident we can do it.”
Rangers are the only other Scottish club to have completed a treble, doing so seven times between 1949 and 2003, but no team has achieved this without losing a game so history beckons for Brendan Rodgers’ side, who are aiming to make it 40 without defeat in Dingwall.
“It would be really special,” Griffiths admits.
Meanwhile, Ryan Dow reckons Ross County should go with the same game plan they used on Celtic’s last visit to Dingwall – even though his side ended up losing 4-0.
The champions take on County tomorrow and Dow reckons Celtic were flattered by the winning margin last October.
Brendan Rodgers’ men netted inside the opening three minutes through Patrick Roberts but were put under some considerable pressure as County tried to hit back. With goalkeeper Craig Gordon in fine form, though, Celtic were able to soak up everything the Highlanders could throw at them before netting three times in the final seven minutes.
Despite the scoreline, Dow believes McIntyre should use the tactical blueprint he used late time out. He said:“We conceded an early goal but we were hitting them on the counter-attack. We were creating chances but Craig Gordon made a couple of saves. Hopefully we can play similarly to that – but this time take our chances.”