With his desperation to play every minute of every game, Keith Wright understands where Leigh Griffiths is coming from, because he had the same unquenchable thirst. However, Wright also looked on at first hand as injury wrecked the cup final dreams of another young striker.
Mark McGraw was Wright’s attacking partner in the Hibernian side that reached the final of the Skol Cup in 1991, but just over a fortnight before the showpiece occasion, McGraw was injured in a match against Dunfermline, who they were also due to meet at Hampden Park.
In the end, the cruel setback didn’t affect Hibs’ chances. They lifted the cup in any case, and Gareth Evans, McGraw’s replacement, played well. McGraw struggled to regain the form he showed before the injury, and left Hibs in 1995, after scoring just three goals.
“Young Mark McGraw, who probably would have been my partner in the final, played in one of the games just before it, and got a serious ankle injury,” recalls Wright, who memorably clinched the place in the final with a headed winner against Rangers. Manager Alex Miller continued to select his star striker in the run-up to Hampden, although, given that the final was then staged in mid-season, these were different circumstances. Miller was conscious of the need to continue picking up league points, and McGraw, who was injured after a collision with the late Norrie McCathie in the 3-0 victory for Hibs, was left to rue the deeply unfortunate consequences.
“Mark had played in every game until just before the final,” adds Wright. “He got injured and he missed the final. He might look back and think if he got rested then he might have played in the final.
“These things can easily happen,” he adds. “Gareth Evans played instead. He didn’t play until the final. Myself and Mark had been doing well up to the final and it probably would have been us up front in the final.”
It is appropriate that Wright is recounting this story in a William Hill betting shop, since football, like life, is all about risk. The Scottish Cup trophy is on the latest stop of its pre-cup final promotional tour. As punters come and go, ripping up coupons in disgust, their hopes and dreams extinguished until the next race, it is a reminder that things don’t always go to plan.
Wright also empathises with Griffiths’ desire to reach a round figure of goals, although his own target was a little more modest compared to 30. Having already scored 19 goals in season 1993/94, Hibs travelled to face his former side Dundee on the penultimate day of the campaign, in what was a relatively meaningless clash for both teams, with the Dens Park side having already been relegated. “A good chance to hit my 20th goal,” thought Wright, but then the best-laid schemes of mice, men and even the mongoose (the nickname he picked up during his Dundee days) ‘aft go a gley’. “I missed a sitter,” he laments. Hibs lost 4-0.
“There was a relaxed, pre-season friendly vibe,” he continues. “There wasn’t much at stake for either club so I thought it was a great chance to hit the 20-goal mark, but it was one of those days when it wasn’t happening. Leigh will think a chance has gone, too, after being rested on Wednesday against Kilmarnock, but that’s just the confidence he has just now. He wants to be involved in everything.”
As it happens, Dundee, who Griffiths can also count among his former clubs, are Hibs’ opponents this afternoon at Easter Road, and whether the striker plays a part or not remains to be seen. He needs another two goals to hit the magic total of 30, with one more game to come after today – next weekend’s Scottish Cup final, versus Celtic.
“I can see manager Pat Fenlon’s point of view if he is getting wrapped in cotton wool until the cup final, but as a player you want to score as many goals as possible, and play in every game,” says Wright, who amassed over 600 appearances in his career, scoring over 200 goals in the process. It means that he averaged about a goal every three games; not bad for someone who regarded himself as provider, and whose energy made him popular with his strike partners. “They all got moves on the back of me,” he smiles. “Tommy [Coyne] to Celtic, Darren [Jackson] to Celtic.” He recalls Darren telling him: “Just you concentrate on what you are good at, and lay the ball off for me.”
By his own admission, Wright tended to work better in a partnership; with Coyne initially at Dundee, and then with Jackson at Hibs. He name-checks both when contemplating Griffiths’ own worth to the current team, and the qualities he brings. “If I could have played alongside a Leigh-type striker, then I could have added more to his goals tally probably because he has fantastic movement and my hustle-bustle type of play with lay-offs would suit him,” he says.
“He has probably had to do a lot of that himself this season playing in a 4-5-1 formation,” adds Wright. “So to score the amount of goals he has when he is up there by himself is unbelievable. He is the type of player I would have liked to play alongside. I played alongside Darren, and while I would not say he and Leigh were very similar, Darren was very clever, a good player, with clever movement, and a good finisher.
“Tommy was probably a better finisher, but Tommy never took free kicks – Leigh has that to his game. Tommy would tell you himself that he wasn’t the quickest, but he was very clever too; he anticipated things and probably got more tap-ins than Leigh would.”
Jackson, Wright recalls, was once just as central to Hibs’ hopes as Griffiths is now. “I remember Darren playing not so much as the lone striker, but he would take the game by the scruff of the neck at times,” he says. “In the 1992/93 season a lot depended on how well Darren played, and I think it’s similar with Hibs just now; a lot of their results depend on how Leigh Griffiths plays. That’s no disrespect to anyone else in both teams. Everyone knew that Darren was a major part in us getting victories. I think he was probably the closest I can remember to a Leigh Griffiths.”
As with Wright, Griffiths began in the lower divisions, before playing for the team he supported, although in the current star’s case, it has only been a temporary stop-off, with Wolves yesterday activating the clause that means he must return to the club later in the summer. “Hibs fans won’t like me saying it, but if you are being realistic, he is at an age now where he probably has two or three good contracts in him,” says Wright, who believes Griffiths’ future has to lie in England. “He needs to get two or three good contracts to look after himself and his family – or families.”
The last comment is said with a smile, and he smiles again as a punter across the way makes a 2-0 gesture when predicting next weekend’s score, while leaning over the trophy itself, for a photograph. “As long as it’s for the Hibs, that would be good,” says Wright, who never made it to a Scottish Cup final, after finishing on the losing side in three semi-finals – once with Dundee and on two occasions with Hibs, despite taking Celtic to a replay in one of those.
He still shivers at the memory of last year’s final. Afterwards his youngest son Harry briefly flirted with the idea of following Hearts. “But that was quickly knocked out of him, by his two grandfathers, cousins and brother,” he says.
Wright will finally play a role in a Scottish Cup final next Sunday, when attending the football festival being held at Lesser Hampden on the morning of the game. The SFA community coach has been invited to lift the trophy, and why not? When it comes to Hibs’ tortured relationship with the Scottish Cup, even superstition has been rendered a meaningless concept.
After struggling so hard to get a seat on the East Lothian Hibs supporters’ club bus, Wright has had to pull out, but will meet up with the gang at night should Hibs finally pull off the long awaited win. “I will dump the car at home in Tranent, and then go and see the cup parade,” he says, barely believing that it might come to pass. But then nobody can any more. And that, of course, is precisely when the unexpected tends to happen.