ALTHOUGH Leigh Griffiths might yet be frustrated in his bid to do what no Hibernian player since Jimmy O’Rourke and Alan Gordon has achieved by reaching the 30-goal mark, the striker has now emulated one of the finest ever Easter Road servants by being named Scottish Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year.
Griffiths follows in the footsteps of Pat Stanton, who was the last Hibs player to win the award, in 1969-70. However, not even Stanton was as garlanded as Griffiths, who has also collected the PFA Scotland Young Player of the Year and Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League Player of the Year awards after scoring 28 times so far this season. In winning the SFWA Player of the Year award, Griffiths succeeds last year’s winner, Charlie Mulgrew. As well as Stanton, such distinguished names as Henrik Larsson and Brian Laudrup are past winners.
Griffiths now has two more matches in which to reach – or even exceed – the 30-goal mark. The first, if he is selected, is tomorrow’s home league clash against his former club Dundee, and the second is the rather more significant occasion of the Scottish Cup final, against Celtic.
Griffiths was left out of the squad for Hibs’ 3-1 victory over Kilmarnock on Wednesday and while he understands the reasons why, he wouldn’t be the player he is if he wasn’t a bit miffed. He is desperate to reach 30 goals. “But if I am not playing I won’t be able to get to that figure,” he said yesterday, as he reflected on yet another award in a remarkable season.
He isn’t even a permanent Hibs player, with the saga of his loan deal from Wolves meaning that his future plans remain outwith his control. What he can influence is his own improvement as a player, and Griffiths knows that practice makes perfect. “Scott Thomson, our goalkeeping coach, is always helpful in organising the goalies so that I can hit a bag of balls at them,” he explained. Details like this can contribute towards the player’s rehabilitation in the eyes of those who once dismissed him as a troublemaker, one who was perhaps more trouble than he was worth. Few can claim this now, with Scotland manager Gordon Strachan almost certain to name the player in his next Scotland squad, for next month’s World Cup qualifier against Croatia.
Griffiths prefers to concentrate on the immediate future. He is eager to play tomorrow against Dundee. “I can see where the manager is coming from,” he said, when asked how he would feel if he is again rested. However, he clearly wants to be involved. “It’s going to be monumental next week,” he said. “But I have still got my targets right now, which is to score another two goals before the cup final, and I want to do that on Saturday if I can.
“Half my family are Hibs fans, and they’re really up for the final, but I keep stressing to them that there’s still another game to go before that and it’s a good one to finish off with if it is to be my last league game for Hibs, because it’s against my old club, Dundee.”
With the 22-year-old due to become a father for a fourth time in the summer, he has needed to grow up a bit faster than most others, something which he concedes he has not always managed. As well as Pat Fenlon, his manager at Hibs, who else does he turn to for support? “My big brothers, Paul and Mark, and my dad, James,” he said. “They were the ones who always encouraged me when I was younger, and told me to keep the head and do what I do best, which is scoring goals.”
He calls them his greatest influences. “I’ve never real- ly looked up to players all that much,” he said. “I just try to focus on my own game.
“My dad and my brothers always encouraged me not to be afraid to try things on the pitch. They would tell me that if I fancied having a shot, then go for it. The way they saw it was that you might get one chance in a game and if that’s going to be your only opportunity then you have to do the best you can with it.”
That’s what happened last weekend, when he rifled home a free-kick in the 2-1 victory over Hearts. Griffiths yesterday described it as his favourite goal of the season – so far. “It’s too late in the season to get an award for it,” he said. “But it was brilliant for me.” Whether it will stand as his last goal for the club remains to be seen.