THERE is a Hibernian hue to Scotland’s assignments next month that should make Leigh Griffiths feel like the national set-up is a home fit for his heroes.
The Celtic striker’s call-up by fellow Hibee Gordon Strachan is likely to earn him a first cap in just under two years at spiritual haunt Easter Road, where Scotland will contest a friendly with Qatar on 5 June.
If Strachan elects to experiment with his strikeforce ahead of the pivotal Euro 2016 qualifier against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin the following weekend, Griffiths’ fifth cap could come alongside Steven Fletcher. The forward is not just another player to Griffiths but an inspiration that he watched as a youth as he cut his teeth at the Leith club, alongside the likes of current Celtic team-mate and national captain Scott Brown, and Steven Whittaker, now a Scotland full-back.
Griffiths overlapped with Fletcher at Wolves in 2011 but never played with him before going on loan to, yes, Hibs, and the bonds between the pair have developed far beyond idol and idolised.
“He is a great lad and has been a great player for Scotland,” said Griffiths. “I didn’t know a lot of boys down at Wolves apart from Fletch and Christophe Berra so if I wanted any advice I would go to him or Christophe. I was delighted for him [Fletcher] when he scored his hat-trick against Gibraltar because he took a lot of stick before about not being ready for the international stage and not scoring enough goals.
“He showed in that game exactly why he is the main man and I texted him after it just to say ‘well done’. But I will be vying for that No 9 jersey next month because it is one spot that four of us are fighting for.
“It can be strange playing with players you have looked up to and I did that at Hibs too when I was sitting next to Gary O’Connor in the changing room, and then when I came here I started driving in with Scott Brown. When I first signed for Celtic it was like waking up as a kid at Christmas driving in with Broony. He’s a great guy and he’s my good friend now.”
Just not a pal he would like to room with, though. “He’s too hyper for me,” said Griffiths. Considering the striker is hardly known as a Zen-like figure, Brown’s hyperactivity really must be something else.
The scoring feats that have earned Griffiths his call-up have been outstanding – his last 20 appearances have yielded 15 goals – but not something that goes beyond past exploits. On loan to, yes, Hibs in 2012-13, he netted 28 times to pave the way for him to make a mark in the dark blue of his country – all too readily forgotten as the striker has been presented as an international novice this week.
In many respects, the 1-0 victory in Croatia two years ago proved the catalyst for the upsurge in Scotland’s fortunes that Strachan has masterminded. In Zagreb that evening, Griffiths showed a different side to his game in serving the cause.
“We had a few call-offs and I remember in the training before the game when the manager told me I was playing up front I was a wee bit shocked,” said the Celtic striker. “He and Mark McGhee pulled me aside and told me, ‘Just play your normal game – you’ve been flying for Hibs this season and we want you to continue exactly the same’. I ran myself into the ground for an hour and thankfully I contributed to an historic victory. We went over there and nobody gave us a hope in hell of winning the game and we proved a lot of people wrong.”
Griffiths, who didn’t fare so well when his only other start for his country ended with a home defeat by Belgium three months later, has also spent the past six months proving people wrong – those who were convinced the, sometimes wayward, ginger-and-crisps type Scottish striker, could never adapt to the Ronny Deila regime wherein he makes demands on his Celtic players to be 24-hour athletes.
Now, Griffiths’ status is such that the £1 million bid Leeds United were reported to be preparing for the striker could be dismissed as a silly season story. The 24-year-old’s sights are set on the Champions League not the English Championship next season with Deila having said he will trust the Scot to spearhead his team’s European campaign. Not that the Norwegian has much choice, to be frank.
“If I’m the main man to lead the Champions League qualifiers I will be delighted,” Griffiths said. “The John Guidetti situation has not been resolved yet and if he signs here then great. But if not I will be banging on that door to get the No 9 jersey because that’s the jersey you want as a Celtic player.” And a Scotland player.