Leigh Griffiths not prepared to play second fiddle at Celtic
The striker scored four goals in starting the last six games of the campaign for Celtic as they completed an unbeaten domestic treble before adding the spectacular flourish of his free-kick double for Scotland in the dramatic 2-2 World Cup qualifying draw against the Auld Enemy.
Griffiths has barely had time to draw breath before he turns his attention to a new season which Celtic will kick off in the Champions League qualifiers next month.
He is already clear in his mind, however, that he has no intention of experiencing a repeat of the frustration he endured for much of last season when he became Celtic’s second-choice front man behind Moussa Dembele.
The injury sustained by the young French striker in April presented Griffiths with the opportunity to reclaim the starting role and it is one he is not prepared to give up lightly. While under contract at Celtic until 2021, he admits he would seek clarification from manager Brendan Rodgers about his situation if he found himself warming the bench once more.
“If that’s the case I’ll need to go away and work hard and speak to the manager to find out what’s going to happen, if I’m going to be playing second fiddle or I’m going to get my chance sooner rather than later,” he said.
“You never know, I might start the season ahead of Moussa. It’s up to the manager and what he wants to go with.
“I don’t want to be going back on the bench for the full campaign, I want to be playing. I’m going to be 27 in August, I’m no spring chicken. I’m probably in the best form of my career so far, so you don’t want to be playing second fiddle. But the manager knows that. He knows he has two players who want to play week in, week out and it’s up to us to fight it out for that one position.
“I don’t feel I’m in possession of the jersey. It’s a new season, it will be 50-50. It’s just about how hard you work in training, how well you’re looking, how sharp you are. Obviously in the pre-season friendlies you need to show what you’re all about. The Champions League qualifiers come up very quickly so he has to make his mind up pretty quickly about who’s going to be number one.
“Ultimately it was down to Moussa getting injured that I got my chance at the end of the season but I took it well. I carried that into the Scotland game as well, which was good. Thankfully it’s not been too long since I was last playing so hopefully we can go into the friendlies and the competitive games really quickly and I’m still on fire.
“I started well last season, scoring in the Champions League qualifiers and in the first few games in the league season as well. The manager knows I can do it on that kind of stage. But Moussa’s then proved that he can do it in the group stage of the Champions League. So the manager has a selection headache on his hands but it’s one he will probably relish.”
Rodgers was among the first to congratulate Griffiths on his display against England, as much for his all-round contribution in leading the line as for his dead ball expertise.
“He texted me straight after the game and said he was very impressed with how I played, not just my goals but my link-up play as well,” added Griffiths. “That was something he was wanting to improve in me from when he came into Celtic last year and over the course of the season he’s seen improvement in that.
“He probably wouldn’t have expected to be saying that at the end of the season I would be man of the match against England and score two goals, so it was nice to hear that from the manager.
“He must take massive credit because without his training and the way he wants to work, I wouldn’t be in that position. The fitness levels are incredible and the way he has his teams set up is the way we play with Scotland too, with a single striker. He’s got to take big credit for it because he’s seen improvements in my game since the start of last season.”
Griffiths, meanwhile, has shrugged off any concerns over Celtic’s potential opening Champions League qualifier against Linfield which, if the Belfast side overcome La Fiorita of San Marino, will take place at Windsor Park on Friday 14 July with a 5pm kick-off. Celtic will not be taking up an allocation of tickets for their supporters.
“It’s all about keeping the fans safe,” said Griffiths. “We know how Linfield are – it’s one of the games we have to do professionally, get the win and look forward to the home leg.
“Will it be the most hostile away atmosphere I’ve faced? I go Tynecastle – that’s worse! Going to Tynecastle is worse than any place I have ever been.
“We know it would be a hostile environment in Belfast but if Linfield do get through hopefully it’s about us. If we put in a professional performance then hopefully we can come away with a decent lead.”