If this season began with the position of Celtic’s No 1 striker up for grabs, it is a contest long since won by Leigh Griffiths.
That was perhaps best summed up last Saturday at Celtic Park when a dispirited and ineffective Nadir Ciftci was replaced at half-time by a still not fully fit Griffiths who duly grabbed the only goal of the game against Partick Thistle.
Ciftci’s struggle to make a positive impact at the Scottish champions following his £1.5 million summer move from Dundee United has seen him score just four times in 22 appearances so far.
Griffiths, by contract, goes from strength to strength as a Celtic player. His winner against Thistle was his 20th goal of the campaign, matching his tally for the whole of last season, to make him the undisputed first choice striker for manager Ronny Deila’s 4-2-3-1 system.
Darren Jackson is in a unique position to assess both players, having mentored Griffiths from a young age as his agent before later becoming a specialist striker coach to Ciftci while part of Jackie McNamara’s management team at Dundee United.
While he sympathises with Ciftci’s current difficulties, Jackson is not surprised at the success being enjoyed by Griffiths at one of his former clubs.
Leigh is a natural finisher and always will be. He also seems to be adding a lot more to his game which can only make him an even better player for CelticDarren Jackson
“Celtic fans always want to see big stars coming in as strikers and I can relate that to my own move there,” said Jackson. “So that’s why some of them were not hugely enthusiastic about Leigh when he was first signed.
“But I knew Leigh would score goals for Celtic. People then asked if he could do it in Europe, but he did that this season and his game has improved all round. He’s better at leading the line and is like Kenny Miller in that he is one of those players who likes playing up front himself. He doesn’t have to look to anyone else to see what runs they are making. All the goals he scored when he was on loan at Hibs, he was playing up front himself. He knows what he wants and where the ball is going to go.
“I’m not picking Ronny Deila’s team, but could Leigh and Nadir play together up front? I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. They could. They are different types but Nadir played up front on his own at times for United. He just wants to be in the team but with Ronny only playing one up front, how can it not be Leigh right now?”.
Jackson was initially alerted to Griffiths’ potential when the striker was in the Livingston youth academy.
“John Robertson and Dave Bowman, who I’m pals with, were at Livingston at the time,” he recalled. “They told me to come down and see this lad who was good and a bit mad. My dad, who isn’t with us anymore, also knew about him as a young kid and said he was mad on the pitch. By mad, I mean his temperament!
“But you could see right away how good he was. Leigh doesn’t dress things up. He doesn’t go past someone and think ‘is this a good angle?’. He just goes past them and hits it. The ‘keeper isn’t ready for it.
“He will hit it from angles people don’t expect and that’s why he scores so many goals. He doesn’t want to dress it up, beat three people, have a nutmeg here or a flick there. He just wants to get a chance, get a yard and get a shot on target. Most of the time, it is on target.”
Griffiths, of course, has attracted more than his fair share of attention for off the field controversies which may have contributed to a few of Jackson’s grey hairs.
“He’s an absolute gem of a boy but as an agent you do have concerns,” smiled Jackson. “You do worry. But he’s gone to Celtic and he’s a happy boy. He’s signed a new contract recently and he’s happy on the pitch. His life, although it can be complicated, he’s happy with it and that’s showing on the pitch. Go and ask anyone at Celtic, Dundee or anywhere he’s been – they love him. He’s a great wee guy who just wants to play football with his pals.
“A goalscorer is natural. Look at them through the years. It’s just in you. People talk about the great goalscorers being lucky - but they’re not lucky. They just make a decision to get into the box in a certain place at a certain time. They can’t be lucky 30 times a season.
“Leigh is a natural finisher and always will be. He also seems to be adding a lot more to his game which can only make him an even better player for Celtic.”
Jackson also believes Griffiths could translate that form onto the international stage for Scotland when the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign starts later this year.
“Gordon Strachan will be delighted to have someone else who is scoring goals and who he knows he could put in the team,” he said.
“It’s great that Leigh has now scored goals for Celtic in Europe as well. In my time, it was club level, European level and then international level.
“When I was played for Scotland, a lot of the boys were playing regular European football. So that can only help the wee man, facing the systems European teams play.
“It won’t be a problem for Gordon, it will be a pleasure. He will want four or five strikers scoring goals - Jordan Rhodes is another.
“The way Scotland play under Gordon now, it will be one up front. In some games, it might be Leigh and in others it might be Steven Fletcher because of his experience.”
l Darren Jackson was speaking at a William Hill event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.