Celtic boss Neil Lennon warns 'belligerent' Leigh Griffiths that he needs to get fitter despite Scottish Cup final heroics

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Neil Lennon used a well-selected phrase to sum up Leigh Griffiths yesterday: “Natural born footballer”. He might hesitate, however, before calling him a naturally fit footballer.

Despite this being nearly the end of December, and Griffiths having been back in full training since September following an ankle injury, the debate over whether the Celtic striker is fit enough to last a full game continues. It seems unsatisfactory in the extreme.

On top of this was the furore during the summer when the player came back to the club following lockdown carrying an unacceptable amount of extra weight. He was left behind while the first team squad played in a pre-season tournament in France.

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There were some who questioned whether he would play for the club again, but his manager chose to adopt a more forgiving approach. Lennon resolved not to send him out on loan or place him on the transfer list.

Celtic's Leigh Griffiths with manager Neil Lennon (right) after the William Hill Scottish Cup Final won over Hearts at Hampden Park (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)Celtic's Leigh Griffiths with manager Neil Lennon (right) after the William Hill Scottish Cup Final won over Hearts at Hampden Park (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Celtic's Leigh Griffiths with manager Neil Lennon (right) after the William Hill Scottish Cup Final won over Hearts at Hampden Park (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

That ankle niggle knocked Griffiths off course again but since stepping from the bench near the start of October to score the first goal in a 2-0 win over St Johnstone, he has been in and around the first-team picture.

He has, however, still only started one game - the 3-1 defeat by AC Milan in the Europa League - when he was taken off at half-time. All his other eight appearances, including his goalscoring cameo in Sunday’s Scottish Cup final win over Hearts, have been off the bench. After his Hampden heroics, when he also converted a penalty in the shootout, Griffiths stressed that his match fitness won’t improve unless he’s on “that green stuff, the pitch”.

Nobody could fail to interpret this as a challenge to Lennon to play him more. Or at least trust him enough to hand him a first league start of the season. Maybe that will come against Ross County tonight, maybe it won’t. Celtic do now have four games in ten days to negotiate, including the critical Old Firm clash on January 2nd. If Griffiths can’t convince Lennon to give him significant game-time in this hectic period, when the manager will be mindful about giving others adequate time to rest, then something really is far wrong.

Celtic fans would relish seeing Griffiths partner Odsonne Edouard in attack. Many would contend it’s the club’s most dynamic striking partnership. However, Lennon has often preferred to play the likes of Albian Ajeti and Patryk Klimala instead. The returning Mikey Johnston is another who won't make things any easier for Griffiths’ hopes of securing an extended run in the team.

Even now, the Celtic manager sounds unconvinced about the striker’s physical condition. Lennon described Griffiths as “belligerent” in his belief that he’s ready for more minutes, perhaps even a series of starts. His manager clearly contends that’s not the case. Not yet, at least. It appears he still needs to pick up the pace in training.

“I don’t know if he’s fit enough to do a full 90 minutes yet,” said Lennon. “That’s where I stand on it. I think he’s fit enough to play a chunk of games.”

Asked what’s stopping him getting sufficiently fit, Lennon replied: “He’s training every day, but I think he can maybe push himself a little more. Griff has tunnel-vision, he can be quite belligerent. He has great belief in himself.

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“This isn’t him and I falling out over anything,” he added. “I think he can get fitter. Maybe he thinks he can get fitter by playing more of the games, but I think, in between games or if he’s not playing as much, he can do a little bit more. He may disagree with that but it’s just a difference of opinion, probably.”

Sadly for Griffiths, only one opinion counts at Celtic at present. Lennon, as much as his position has been the subject of speculation since the last time Ross County were in town, remains in place as manager. In contrast to Stuart Kettlewell, who masterminded the Highlanders’ Betfred Cup win last month before losing his job at the weekend after the home defeat to Hamilton Accies, Lennon’s own situation has improved markedly in recent games.

Admirably, and despite having a cup final to prepare for the following day, Lennon phoned Kettlewell on Saturday evening to offer his support. He told him he now had his “badge of honour,” since a manager is not really a fully-fledged manager until he is sacked.

Sunday’s cup win surely guarantees Lennon more time to mount a belated challenge to Rangers’ current ascendancy. And Griffiths will surely play a part – just how much of a part remains to be seen.

“I was delighted with his contribution at Hampden,” reflected Lennon. “I’m not totally convinced that he’s fit but he’ll be fit enough to play and add something to the games as we go along. But I’m very pleased with him: he did what he always does – he sniffed out a good chance and his reaction to the second ball was brilliant. I’m delighted for him.

“He’s a goalscoring phenomenon and that’s why I kept him around. He will get the opportunity going forward, there’s no question of that.

“He’s a huge asset,” Lennon added. “I want him fit and hungry, which he definitely is. He’s a natural born footballer and he’s a great personality to have around the place as well.

“You could see what it meant to him on Sunday. He was cock-a-hoop to have made a contribution and won a cup. He’s not done that for a while. Hopefully it gives him a huge shot in the arm going forward.”

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