Alan Pattullo: A tale of two Lees/Leighs

Try, try again. It might seem a little strange to advise someone to look to Leigh Griffiths for guidance, particularly when that someone is as experienced as Lee McCulloch. But, when it comes to turning around public opinion, the Celtic striker’s recent narrative arc is surely of interest to the Rangers skipper, who endured some hostile treatment at the hands of his own supporters on Saturday.

Rangers captain Lee McCulloch. Picture: SNS Group

McCulloch turns 37 later next month and his contract is due to expire in the summer. It is reasonable to wonder whether it is not now too late to effect the change required to see McCulloch hailed by the supporters. But then it wasn’t so very long ago that Griffiths was in the “more trouble than he’s worth” category according to Celtic fans. While they might not have been actively jeering the player, many were deeply troubled by his behaviour. Mostly these concerns involved off–the-field “brain fades”, to use a currently in-vogue phrase.

However, two hat-tricks in less than a fortnight mean he is currently the toast of Paradise. As contrived as it might seem to bracket these two “Le(ighs)” together, it is notable how they both featured heavily in the headlines at the weekend. McCulloch’s were of the unwanted variety after a poor performance at the heart of the Rangers defence, one that has threatened to sour what could be his last days at the club he has always supported.

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He has a few weeks left of his contract. At best – or should that be at worst, in terms of Rangers’ hope they can avoid a quarter-final play-off – McCulloch has seven games in which to try to turn things around for him personally.

Rangers captain Lee McCulloch. Picture: SNS Group

Current Ibrox manager Stuart McCall’s own future is up in the air, so he is hardly going to start doling out new contracts to veterans. What he has to decide, though, is whether to play McCulloch in this weekend’s crucial clash with Hearts at Tynecastle. Or has his treatment by a loud minority of fans dented the player’s confidence to such an extent that he might be more hindrance than help again?

Strangely for a ground known for its intimidating qualities, McCulloch may view Tynecastle as a shelter from the storm compared to Ibrox, where the skipper was jeered to such an extent against Falkirk on Saturday that his manager was forced later to come out and condemn the treatment. McCulloch was knocked off the ball in the run-up to the first of the two goals scored by the visitors. Although Rangers rallied to level the score in injury time, the question of what to do with Lee McCulloch seemed to be one that hung in the air afterwards.

While the Rangers fans desperately wanted McCulloch to be their next David Weir, it hasn’t happened. Signed in the summer of 2007, he is coming to the end of his eighth season at the club. Pushed back up-field as striker, he scored a thoroughly decent haul of 23 goals in Rangers’ Division Three adventure. McCulloch appeared eminently qualified to fit the role of club ambassador on the field, let down only by an infuriating and downright dangerous habit of leading with an elbow when challenging for high balls

Weir, of course, is an exception, playing on until his early 40s. But he also had a positional sense that comes with playing for so long as a centre-half, something McCulloch, who started his career as a striker and was then signed as a midfielder by Rangers, is not able to fall back on. He is learning his craft anew. Just as taxing has been the steps up in quality he is being asked to make in his mid-to-late 30s.

Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths celebrates completing his hat-trick with his penalty against Dundee United. Picture: SNS Group

As a former internationalist, you might expect him to take this in his stride. But few players have to cope with such escalating challenges. Normally, it is in the other direction – i.e. down the leagues – in which they are travelling at this stage of their career.

As recently as this September, meanwhile, one columnist in a Sunday tabloid was questioning Griffiths’ future at Celtic. Did he even have one? It did not look terribly promising. Ronny Deila was making pointed remarks about his fitness levels. Now Griffiths is able to munch a Tunnock’s teacake on the bench and still be given the equivalent of a friendly clip around the ear by his manager, who later joked about the incident as if referring to an errant favourite child.

As Griffiths himself said after scoring his latest hat-trick, against Dundee United on Sunday, had you told him in December he would be top goalscorer at Celtic with four games to go, he would have laughed. Griffiths only had four goals to his name by the time he was sitting down to open Christmas presents with his children.

Now he has 18 of them in total. Goals, that is, not children. He is on target to score 20 or more for the third season in succession. Back at Christmas, there was still the lingering possibility he might drop down a division to the Championship, with Hibs reported to be interesting in bringing him back.

He was barely getting a look-in at Celtic. It wasn’t only under Deila that this was happening. Neil Lennon never seemed completely convinced either, even though he pushed through his signing last season, backing him to follow in the footsteps of Scott McDonald and Gary Hooper by graduating to become a Champions League striker.

This hasn’t happened yet. Indeed, it might still be the one great doubt concerning Griffiths. Can Celtic really rely on him at Champions League level? The fact he has not scored in eight European appearances to date could be why the jury is still out on that one, but he can take heart from Deila’s seeming happiness, confirmed following Sunday’s victory at Tannadice, to go into next season’s European assignments with Griffiths as No 1 striker.

Perhaps by then he will also have wrestled back the place in the Scotland squad that he lost during those days when he was reduced to bit-part player at Parkhead. With Steven Fletcher having succumbed to injury again and already a doubt to be fit to face Ireland in next month’s crucial Euro 2016 qualifier, the continued re-emergence of Griffiths has come at just the right time. It is also a lesson for all those with a pressing need to find an answer to the brickbats.

No-one is expecting McCulloch to respond with a hat-trick against Hearts on Saturday. But maybe, just maybe, he could yet have the last laugh by securing the legacy he most wants as the man who led Rangers back to the top flight.