Leigh Griffiths crowned SPL Player of the Year

The award-winning Hibs striker is happy he's now being judged for what he does on the pitch. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The award-winning Hibs striker is happy he's now being judged for what he does on the pitch. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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JUST 24 hours after he had raised his thumb in salute of a thrilling derby goal, Leigh Griffiths yesterday entered the Easter Road media room clicking his fingers.

Life is currently good for the soon-to-be father of four.

As well as children, the 22-year-old Griffiths is gathering awards, goals and ever greater renown. Can Wolverhampton Wanderers afford not to take the striker back from his season-and-a-half loan spell with Hibernian?

Griffiths yesterday described his goal on Sunday, in Hibs’ 2-1 victory over Hearts, as his best yet for the club. The free-kick strike was also his 28th of the season, beating Stevie Cowan’s 27-year scoring record for the Easter Road club. Now Griffiths has set his sights on the 30-goal mark, which no Hibs striker has reached since Alan Gordon and Jimmy O’Rourke both managed to exceed this total with some ease back in 1972-73.

In addition, he has collected two prestigious personal awards. Griffiths was named as the PFA Scotland young player of the year last week and, last night, Clydesdale Bank Premier League player of the year. He is in the running for the Scottish Football Writers’ award as well. On Sunday night, meanwhile, he was the unsurprising choice for Hibs player of the year.

Finally, Griffiths is being judged where he wants to be judged – on the football pitch. It hasn’t always been the case, of course, as much because of his own foolishness as the desire of others to focus on less wholesome episodes, which have tended to stick to his life like barnacles. He accepts culpability for much of this, and knows that on too many occasions he let his manager and team-mates down last season, when he risked suspension and the ire of his own supporters by reacting to comments from the crowd with pointlessly belligerent gestures.

These days, his antics have been restricted to raising his thumb. It is a knowing and perfectly understandable response to those Hearts supporters who tease him for looking like said digit. Over and above this knockabout stuff, it is clear that Griffiths also craves serious recognition for what he can do on the pitch, and this season he has been getting it, having also made his Scotland debut last November against Luxembourg.

“I want people to judge me for what I do on the park and people do see that I work hard for the team and score goals,” he said yesterday, just prior to collecting his latest award at the Clydesdale Bank Premier League Awards dinner in Glasgow. “Sometimes people forget what kind of player I am. I don’t want people to judge me for what I do off the park. Yes, it is a big part of it. But I want people to judge me for what I do on the park. I want people to see that I work hard for the team and I score goals.”

He has changed his ways, he says, after a long discussion with his manager, Pat Fenlon, at the start of the season. “I have cut out all the silly stuff that I did towards the end of last season,” Griffiths said. Indeed, reflecting this determined attempt to change his attitude on the pitch has been his tally of only four bookings this season, and only one so far this year.

Whether or not he has resolved to be more circumspect, he certainly appears to have dealt with many of his anger 
issues. Although clearly desperate to play, he sympathises with Fenlon’s position. The manager must decide whether to keep his star striker out of harm’s way this week, when Hibs take on Kilmarnock and then Dundee. There is no doubt that Griffiths’ availability is central to Hibs’ hopes of gaining relief from the eternal struggle and finally lifting the Scottish Cup a week on Sunday against Celtic.

“I want to play in every game and I want to beat that [30-goal] record,” said Griffiths. “I want to be the first player in 40 years to do that. It is up to the manager whether he wants to rest me for a couple of weeks and if he wants to rest me for the final, so be it. I want to keep playing until the manager says he wants to rest me.”

As regards his chances of being selected for Scotland for next month’s World Cup qualifier against Croatia, again he stresses he is desperate to play, but if someone he refers to as “Mr Strachan” decides otherwise, he won’t be too disheartened.

“If I am in the Scotland squad then I will be absolutely delighted, and it would cap off a dream season,” he said. “I am not expecting to be in the squad, because I know there are a lot of great strikers already in the squad. It is up to Mr Strachan to pick me, but I won’t be disappointed if I am not in it.”

There is a flash of irritation when he is asked about the on-going devilry between Hearts and Hibs. Following Sunday’s game at Tynecastle, defender Darren Barr was quick to trash the notion that, having now gone five matches unbeaten against their rivals, the Easter Road side are the top dogs in the city. However, Griffiths believes a change is on the way. “You speak to any Hearts player, and because of what happened last season in the cup final, they might still feel that they have the bragging rights,” he said.

“But we have gone through the entire season unbeaten. We have gone to Tynecastle and given then an absolute doing from start to finish, and we felt mugged going in at half-time 1-0 down. Maybe the tide is turning.”

Whether he is still around to ensure that it does remains to be seen. Griffiths admits he is “in limbo” as Wolves, his parent club, continue to ponder who should replace recently-sacked manager Dean Saunders, following the club’s second successive demotion, to League One. The prospect of playing in the third tier of English football can’t appeal to Griffiths, but then is even remaining with Hibs something that can satisfy him after such an eye-catching season? He met with Wolves football director Kevin Thelwell last week, on a quick trip back to the Midlands.

“Wolves just clarified that they want me back down to start pre-season training,” he said. “We will just need to see what happens after the Scottish Cup final and see if Hibs and Wolves can come to an agreement, or if I am going back to Molineux or not.” Wolves have indicated that they wish to activate the 12-month option on his contract, which is due to expire this summer. Griffiths has only ever made one first-team appearance for the English club. “It is up to the new manager, whoever that may be, to decide if he wants to keep me at the club or let me go,” he explained, once again.

“Time will tell who the new manager is and whether or not that might happen,” he added. Amid the uncertainty, Griffiths continues to thrive.