It felt as if there was near universal belief Leigh Griffiths would not make it back from the personal and injury problems that made 2019 a write-off. In the end, when the on-field story of Celtic’s record-equalling ninth title is fully digested, it should be recognised that the 29-year-old didn’t just make it back, he ended up making the crucial difference.
It isn’t a mere coincidence that Neil Lennon’s side truly hit their straps when Griffiths was allowed to operate in tandem with Odsonne Edouard in a 3-5-2 system following the winter shutdown. That partnership was central to the club establishing a 13-point lead over Rangers. In turn, this meant Premiership clubs felt able to approve Celtic being confirmed champions when the season was curtailed following the mid-March shutdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Griffiths’ eight goals in – what proved – the final two months of the season, provided him his best scoring returns since the early stages of the 2016-17 season. Moreover, starting 11 games inside an eight-week period as he was restored to a first pick accorded the striker a status he had not enjoyed subsequent to his 40-goal exploits in the 2015-16 campaign that resulted in the managerial handover from Ronny Deila to Brendan Rodgers.
Lennon, who previously expressed reservations about Griffiths returning to the levels he reached back then, now believes there is potential for such a comeback in the long-term. Starting with Celtic’s return to training on the government-sanctioned 11 June date, in preparation for a closed-doors start to the ten-chasing campaign on the first weekend of August.
“Leigh has been good and on the Monday it was announced we had won the league he was straight on to me, saying he can’t wait to be back next season,” said Lennon. “He’s in a good place mentally and physically and he’s been doing all his work and extra with the fitness coach. The season was curtailed when he was coming into form but he should hold on to that and use it as motivation.
“He knows he has come back and can compete at the highest level and score goals and make a difference for us and that was a real shot in the arm for him. The second half of the season was very good. There were a few games he could have done better but we were OK with that and you can’t argue with his talent and he’s got that knack of scoring goals which is a natural talent.”
A first hat-trick in four years – in a 5-0 thumping of St Mirren on 7 March – seemed to confirm that Griffiths was well and truly back… just as football was forced to go away. He seemed a world removed from the physically diminished figure that succumbed to a series of injuries in the first half of last season that had followed six months away from football to deal with depression. “We were patient with him and you could see the more the season went on the stronger and more confident he was getting so while it’s been a blow to him it hasn’t been a terminal blow for him, or anyone else for that matter.
“Hopefully we can get him back in and get him up to speed and he’ll be an asset for us going forward – you can’t replace the goals he scores which is such a vital asset for us.”
Now the irrepressible character is one that Lennon believes should not be daunted by turning 30 later this year, when there is so much more to his game than being a natural finisher – as he illustrated with the telepathy and deft touches that allowed him to play so effortlessly off Edouard.
“Leigh’s got great football intelligence as well. His movement off the ball was good and he looked like he was really enjoying his football again before it was curtailed, but there’s more to come from him. He’s at his peak now and he’s got three or four years at the highest level still to come.”
With Griffiths’ past mental health issues, it is perfectly understandable to consider that Lennon and his club may have had concerns over how the player would cope with lockdown and isolation. His regular TikTok and social media posts suggest he has amused himself during these ten weeks in much the same way as countless others. Lennon himself has also been open over his struggles with depression, but he feels he and his squad have coped with this extraordinary situation.
“We’re always on top of things in terms of the mental approach as well as physical,” he said. “They have the week set out by the fitness coach John Currie and Jack Nayler [head of sports science] is keeping on top of things in terms of making sure they finish the programme so I’m delighted with the work going on despite the obstacles.
“We have a core group in Scotland and a few lads have been away in their home countries so I’ve been checking in with them and they all seem in good spirits despite the lack of interaction and training with the group. The majority are due back into Scotland this week where they’ll have to quarantine for a couple of weeks in preparation for coming back. They seem in a good place and the main question was when we’d all be back together and now we’re looking at 11 June as a mandate to start.”
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