Even before his unforgettable free-kick double against England last June, Gordon Strachan was made acutely aware of Leigh Griffiths’ burgeoning status. A status that the former Scotland manager believes should place the fit-again striker firmly in the frame for a starting berth against Rangers in Sunday’s Scottish Cup semi-final.
In May of last year, Strachan and his son, Gavin, found themselves golfing with Kenny Dalglish in La Manga. It left Gavin believing he had a proud boast to relate to his Celtic-loving six-year-old son, Owen. “‘Do you know daddy played with probably Scotland’s best-ever player today?’ he said to him,” recalled the former Celtic manager yesterday. “And his wee boy said ‘Leigh Griffiths’. That was about two weeks before we played England and he came to the game and Griff scored two goals.”
These first goals for his country were soon followed by three more as Griffiths, more than any individual, almost rescued Scotland’s World Cup qualifying campaign. As he did so the 27-year-old also ticked off another entry in his career ‘to do’ list with a Champions League group-stage strike at Anderlecht to set Celtic on their way to a first win in the competition proper for four years.
This upward trajectory was interrupted by ankle problems that ended up sidelining him throughout February and March… only for the striker’s half-time introduction at Hamilton last weekend to see him instantly produce a match-winning header.
Strachan believes the patent restoration of Griffiths’ powers should result in Brendan Rodgers giving consideration to restoring the Scotland international to his starting line-up at the weekend. He has began only two of the six games Celtic have played under Rodgers at Hampden, playing second fiddle to Moussa Dembele, pictured below, on the big occasions. The Frenchman was injured for last year’s treble-clinching Scottish Cup final victory over Aberdeen that Griffiths started and was working his way back to fitness when his striking rival was picked ahead of him in last October’s League Cup semi-final.
“There’s a case for Griff [on Sunday] because he’s never let them down when he’s played,” said Strachan. “You can say in terms of defending set-plays and attacking set-plays you lose a bit of height but actually, in free play, when the ball goes in the box, he’s good in the air.
“He’s become far better in the air over the last three or four years. You need to be brave to do that. You know fine well, wee guys are likely to take a knock when you are going up that high. So he’s come on brilliantly in that regard. Big games, they might go for power, but Griff gives you something else. When you play him, I think you are guaranteed four shots a game unless you’re playing someone exceptional like a Barcelona. But in league games and Europa League games, I think you get four attempts at goal from him.”
An idiosyncratic individual whose private life seems forever public, Griffiths has succeeded in taking his game to another level whenever his capacity for meeting the demands placed on him has been questioned. Strachan believes there can be a tendency to frame his development in negative terms when it suggests hidden strengths.
“When people talk about players improving, they often get unfairly treated,” he said. “People say they are not this and they are not that, they are not very clever. But you need to have a reasonable amount of intelligence to take things in. And there’s no doubt he has taken things in from managers over the last three or four years that has made him a better player.
“There is something about him, he’s sharp. Everything he does, it’s quickly. When he walks through the door, it’s quickly. When he talks, it’s quickly. You see him, he’s gone.”
Yet, Strachan would never attempt to suggest Griffiths is wrongly labelled as a daft lad. He has too given in to an impulse for juvenile behaviour – on and off the pitch – for that.
“He is daft at times. But you wouldn’t change him,” said the 61-year-old. “He’s not done me any harm when I worked with him. He added to the energy about the place, the humour and through the fact I could watch him score wonderful goals. He’s not done any managers any harm. He may do silly things but I can’t recall anything that’s affected anyone long term.”
Meanwhile, avoiding anything silly that might affect the reputation in the Scottish game in the long-term places Strachan in the camp of those who consider the risk of a Celtic-Rangers meeting in which the title could be sealed should be side-stepped, if possible. The SPFL is likely to attempt to arrange that with the post-split fixtures arrangements.
“We’d all like that as we kind of enjoyed the Manchester City v Manchester United game – it was a wonderful spectacle,” he said.
“But this is a game where we want to showcase Scotland as well and unfortunately we saw scenes last week at Liverpool. It was a wonderful game of football and what we end up talking about was a bus getting attacked. It was a horrible sight.
“I hope that never happens here but it can and that’s why government and police think we maybe cant take that gamble.”
l Gordon Strachan was speaking at a William Hill event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.