STEVE COWAN was blown away by the goalscoring touch of Leigh Griffiths when he first clapped eyes on him as a raw 11-year-old – and he admits the Hibs striker’s talent has simply improved with age.
Cowan watched in awe as a young Griffiths banged home goals for Leith Athletic as a kid and is delighted to see him fulfilling his potential, carrying on in the same vein following spells at Livingston, Dundee and Wolves. Moreover, he reckons the Easter Road striker could prove himself the best in the SPL this year.
The 22-year-old’s treble in Sunday’s Scottish Cup quarter-final win against Kilmarnock took his total for the season to an impressive 22 in all competitions – seven of those coming in Hibs’ last five matches. With nine league matches remaining, plus at least one more Scottish Cup game to play, Cowan wouldn’t bet against Griffiths smashing through the 30-goal barrier.
Former Hibees striker Cowan, who now works in financial services and as a pundit on Radio Forth, is well-placed to judge, having topped the scoring charts for Hibs himself in season 1985-86. He bagged himself 28 over the course of that campaign in all competitions, but he is certain Griffiths is set to surpass that figure.
Since the inception of the Scottish Premier League in 1998, the top goalscorer accolade has been dominated by Old Firm players, although Kris Boyd did take the title in 2006 with goals bagged for both Kilmarnock and Rangers in the same season. However, Cowan feels this could be season that Griffiths is crowned.
He recalled: “I have watched Leigh since he was about 11 when he played for Leith Athletic. At that time, I was involved with Salvesen. Even back then he always had a knack of scoring goals, no matter how good or bad the team playing – and he could score them from inside the box, outside the box, open play or set-pieces.
“Obviously, everyone who watched him play could see that he was a real talent, but, at that stage, you can never tell if people are going to make it in the game because it’s about so much more than just your football talent.
“From 11 right through to when he was about 15, he was the outstanding striker in his team and, even at that age, he would score ridiculous goals from 25 or 30 yards.”
Although Cowan was impressed by Griffiths as a youngster, he believes that the on-loan Wolves man has improved his game massively since, stabbing in more of the type of goals that a poacher would be proud of instead of just his trademark free-kicks and long-range efforts. No game better illustrated that fact than the weekend’s win over Kilmarnock.
Griffiths displayed great awareness, determination and skill to net two from open play and then rounded off the 4-2 victory with a late penalty kick.
Cowan accepts Griffiths’ goals from distance will grab the headlines, but he reckons the not-so-pretty efforts will prove even more vital.
“His goals on Sunday against Kilmarnock really showed what he is capable of. Obviously, one of them was from the penalty spot, but the other two were really good finishes, particularly the one when he was down on the floor. He could maybe have had another penalty kick for that, but he showed great awareness and determination. He wanted to get the goal, even though he was at a disadvantage – and all credit to him for managing to put it in the back of the net.
“People obviously talk more about the spectacular goals that he scores, but, for me, the biggest compliment that you could give Leigh is that what he makes look easy is actually the hard stuff.
“Very few people can hit a free-kick from 20 or 25 yards out like he can. What he has added to his game in recent seasons is the close-range stuff and playing on the shoulder of the centre-half, tap-ins, that kind of thing.
“Against Kilmarnock, he had the awareness to pick up the scraps. As long as Hibs can give him a good supply then I am sure that there will be a lot more goals to come from him.”
Griffiths could be the first Hibs player to reach the magic 30-mark since Alan Gordon back in season 1972/73 when he hit an incredible 42 goals – and Jimmy O’Rourke hit 34 alongside him!
Although Cowan acknowledges that Griffiths won’t be coming out in public to set himself any targets, he knows that milestone is likely to be high on the player’s hitlist.
“I think that looking at the type of guy he is, he won’t set himself targets in public or come out naming the number of goals he wants to score in a season, but I would say that he will be looking at the 30 mark, without a doubt. He got three at the weekend and he is the kind of player you could see scoring a double or a hat-trick on a regular basis – and that’s all credit to him and the Hibs team.
“I didn’t have targets or score this amount or that amount.
“The most important thing is that he will believe that he can score a goal every single time he steps out onto that park.
“Even when the team are losing by a couple of goals, you can see that he’s still giving 100 per cent and trying to get that goal that will put Hibs back in the game – it’s all about belief.
“He is a Leith boy and he has supported the club from a very young age, so he does have an affinity with the fans and he knows how much this competition means to them.
“They have taken to him and he is doing well, which is good to see because sometimes the local boys can take a bit of stick if things are not going to plan.”
Playing alongside the likes of Gordon Durie, Joe McBride and even a young Mickey Weir, Cowan admits that the 85/86 season was one that he will never forget.
Although Hibs’ league form was inconsistent, they enjoyed relative success in the League Cup and Scottish Cup, only losing out in the final of the former and reaching the semi-finals of the latter.
“I just remember it being a really good season, both for the team and individually,” Cowan recalled. “We got to the League Cup final and the Scottish Cup semi-final. In the league we maybe weren’t great, but we were still playing well and created a lot of chances, we knocked Rangers out of the League Cup and Celtic out of both cup competitions. There are so many good memories from that season.
“Gordon Durie was my strike partner, John Blackley signed both of us and every game that we played, I went into it believing that I was going to score.
“Joe McBride, Ally Brazil and Mickey Weir was just coming through into the team at that time as well. We played a very attacking game and it really paid off for us, although obviously it left you a bit more open to goals at the back.”