Stuart Bathgate: Scottish game needs a bright spark like Leigh Griffiths

WE’LL all miss Leigh Griffiths if he goes. During a season in which decent football has been at a premium – and last night’s Edinburgh derby was just one more example of that – we need players like the Hibernian ­striker to enliven matters.

Hibs supporters will miss him, of course, because without him their team would be half as good. Hearts fans, because they love to hate him. And Scottish football as a whole, because his play has been one of the few highlights of an unremarkable season.

Even one of last night’s four matchday mascots will miss him. In a neighbourly touch, Hearts invited a young Hibs fan to join three Hearts supporters on the pitch in the traditional pre-match kickabout, and it was announced that Griffiths was the boy’s favourite player.

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That theme of neighbourliness continued just before kick-off when all sides of the capacity crowd joined in a minute’s 
applause in memory of the late Dewar Melvin, who had served as Hearts’ doctor for more than three decades.

Needless to say, once the match commenced the usual hostilities resumed. It took all of 25 minutes before there was a shot on goal, and when it came it was hardly worth taking note of, as Paul Cairney trickled an effort straight into the arms of Jamie MacDonald.

Even by the frenetic standards of this fixture, it was an undistinguished start to the game, which was crying out for someone – anyone – to introduce a touch of football into the proceedings.

The responsibility for that at Hibs primarily rests with Griffiths, but Cairney, too, has shown he can produce a subtle touch, while for Hearts, Arvydas Novikovas can be creative in spells.

But this is a season in which every SPL team is struggling to find consistency, and as you might expect from a member of a team which can lose 1-0 at home to Ross County then beat Celtic by the same score just three days later, Griffiths is ­unable to find his best form regularly.

His nickname, “Sparky”, hints at that: he can burst brightly to life one minute, then sputter out the next. But even when he is doing very little, Griffiths can still be worth watching. Take that Boxing Day game against County as an example. The first half was as dull as any 45 minutes you’d see anywhere, but the one thing which stood out amidst the dross was the quality of the striker’s first touch. Technically, he is superior to all of his team-mates and the vast majority of other players in Scotland.

Even when he does no more than play a simple pass, he tends to do so more efficiently than those around him could manage. And when he is faced with a greater degree of difficulty, such as his goal from a tight angle against Celtic, he has the vision and the ability to carry it off. As John Robertson, who coached Griffiths at Livingston, said recently: “He’s not going to appear on University Challenge any time soon.” But don’t let that lack of academic achievement fool you: when it comes to football, Griffiths has a first-class brain.

He was very quiet by his own standards in the first half, but early in the second produced one deft touch, a pass to Cairney, which should have produced the opening goal. Cairney’s through pass put Eoin Doyle in the clear, but the Irishman sent his shot over the bar. If Griffiths had been on the receiving end rather than the one who started the move off, you can be sure he would at least have been on target. He had his liveliest spell of the game in the closing stages, whipping a deflected free-kick just wide, finding David Wotherspoon with a cute back-heel flick, then coming agonisingly close to a goal when Dylan McGowan blocked his lunge at a spilled rebound on the line.

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Hibs still hope to secure his services again when his current loan period from Wolves runs out later this month, but Pat Fenlon was unable to report any progress in negotiations this week, so it remains possible that this was his last derby in the colours of the team he has supported since boyhood. And, given that Griffiths has said he would like to play his whole career at Hibs, you have to wonder why an agreement is taking so long.

His team-mate Tim Clancy put it well the other day when he said that signing the player for £150,000 – the amount Wolves are understood to want for him – is “a low-risk investment”. Not “no risk”, because he is a loose cannon who has had disciplinary problems, but surely worth taking a punt on for any club who can afford him.

His wage requests could complicate things, however. Although not appearing to be hugely motivated by money, he has well-publicised family commitments. Even so, if you think of the difference to your league position a few goals can make, signing him could easily prove to be a profitable move.

Hearts made a similar calculation slightly later last season with Craig Beattie, albeit without the need of transfer fee as he was a free agent. Their financial worries were already acute by then, but John Murray, their director of football, reasoned that Beattie’s goals would more than repay his wages.

And he was right. The former Celtic striker helped his new team get into the top six, scored the winner against his old team in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup, and added an extra layer of self-belief to a squad which, including the likes of Rudi Skacel and Ian Black, was not exactly short of confidence to begin with.

Hearts could do with players like that now. They displayed all the commitment of Black last night, especially in a far better second half, but without having the finesse to go with it.

Hibs, who until recently liked to think of themselves as a refined footballing side, are in a similar position. After their meek capitulation in the Scottish Cup final they needed to recruit some players with dig, but last night they had that quality and little else. If Griffiths goes they will have even less variety to their play.