Hampden Park, 6 September 2013. The fourth official’s board goes up. Antonio Damato signals the number 9 of Leigh Griffiths. Sixty three minutes into the 2014 World Cup qualifier against Belgium and Scotland trail a goal to nil. Off goes Griffiths to be replaced by Jordan Rhodes.
The board not only signalled the Celtic man’s departure, but began a wait of 1163 days until Griffiths would start a competitive game for his country again. Gordon Strachan shocked many by calling on the striker to lead the line at Wembley, as Scotland went in search of a result which would keep their slim hopes of 2018 World Cup qualification intact.
The calls for Griffiths’ inclusion as the country’s leading striker grew louder and louder after each disappointing result. He was finally unleashed. Against England. At Wembley. If Scotland were to record a historic victory he was the likely hero.
He had a chance to draw Scotland level at home to Lithuania but sent his header into the goalkeeper’s arms. He created a chance for himself in Trvana but dragged it wide. He would want a chance. Just once chance. He would fancy himself to find the back of the net.
His time came. Twenty nine minutes into the encounter, as Scotland trailed to Daniel Sturridge’s header, he was set free from the middle of the pitch following sloppy play between Wayne Rooney and John Stones. Ball at his feet he bombed forward, head first towards goal. Robert Snodgrass was an option to his left, two Scotland forwards against two England defenders.
Snodgrass made himself an option pulling wider. Griffiths didn’t want an option, he wanted a decoy. There was only one thing in his mind. He would have been telling himself “this is the moment, this is my time”. The pass was never an option. With the ball on his left foot, Griffiths trusts himself, no matter the situation, no matter the opponents, no matter the distance.
Pulling back his left foot, fans screaming for him to pass, Snodgrass’ hope turning to despair, Griffiths shot at Joe Hart’s goal. Failing to catch it right, the ball deflects into the arms of Hart, leaving Griffiths apologetic and Snodgrass incandescent with rage.
If the situation presented itself again it would be a surprise if Griffiths chose to pass.
It was perhaps the moment in the match which signified the difference between the sides in the final third. Scotland would have more chances but they failed to take them. England took the ones that came their way.
From the moment Cuneyt Cakir blew the whistle to start the game with Griffiths over the kick-off, it was clear the 26-year-old was raring to go. He has netted nine goals in 11 starts this season, following on from 40 goals in all competitions last season. But that has still not been enough to earn him a starting place at both club and international level, until now.
This is a player eager to play and eager to make an impact. He was patrolling and prowling in attack, setting the tempo for Scotland’s pressing in a positive start. He was ably supported by both Darren Fletcher and Scott Brown who were the country’s second wave of pressing. Griffiths buzzed about, a pesky bee that neither Gary Cahill or Stones could swat away.
He used his body well to win and keep possession in the middle of midfield, while displayed his spring by winning a couple of early headers. Much was made of Strachan’s legitimate comments about height and Griffiths’ subsequent change of Twitter username, but while he lacks stature he uses his physical attributes well.
However, he is most dangerous closer to the goal and turning defenders. He was unlucky not to latch onto a lofted through ball after breaking the offside trap, while he had a snap shot on the edge of the box which was crucially blocked behind for a corner.
He just couldn’t get into his favoured position, sneaking between full-back and centre-back, but he was perpetual motion, sniffing about for a second moment. One he wouldn’t, couldn’t, pass up.
A swift counter-attack moments into the second half saw Lee Wallace advance deep into the England half and slide the ball across the box towards Griffiths. Another moment had arrived. But instead of swinging his foot at the ball, he dummied it for club team-mate James Forrest. Manager, players and fans alike would rather Griffiths had showed his rapacious nature and went for it. Forrest passed up the chance.
Scotland would rue the missed chance and the one which followed from Snodgrass. England added a second and a quick third.
The striker completed the 90 minutes, but for large swathes of the second half, he, like his countrymen, were an irrelevance as England eased to victory. A yellow card was his solemn contribution to the remainder of the match.
Griffiths has had to bide his time, 1163 days, for the opportunity to lead his country’s attack into a meaningful game. Few come bigger than England at Wembley. He would have fancied himself to become a hero, but all he is left with is that moment when he’s running through with Snodgrass to play over and over again in his head. It’s nights like these where you can only think it is never going to happen for Griffiths, and for Scotland.