LEIGH Griffiths looked the Celtic management in the eye and made it clear that he would make whatever changes were necessary to stay at the club and be given a chance to hold down a place in the team. He has kept his word and now goes into the new season as one of the first-choice strikers.
The Scottish youngster is not the first to have struggled, initially, with the loftier demands and increased scrutiny at the Glasgow side.
Many starlets, who have caught the eye elsewhere, have failed to step up and have been left by the wayside, their brief stint at Parkhead proving lucrative but ultimately unfulfilling in terms of commanding a leading role in the first team.
Griffiths was in danger of joining that list until a few home truths from manager Ronny Deila and assistant manager John Collins, started to seep in.
“I told Leigh he had to realise where he was,” said Collins, who trod the same path as Griffiths, from Easter Road to the east end of Glasgow, almost two and a half decades earlier and has taken the striker under his wing. “He is at a fantastic football club as a striker playing for Celtic knowing that the team dominates games and creates chances.
“You don’t want to leave this football club. So I told him he had to change and be more professional and eat, sleep, and drink like a real football player if he wanted to be a Celtic first-team regular.
“It wasn’t just me as Ronny Deila was constantly on his case. But Leigh looked me in the eye and told me: ‘I am going to change and do all that because I never want to leave this football club’. All credit to him because he has done that.”
Four goals and 19 appearances in the first half of last season, his turnaround in attitude yielded a much improved 16 goals in his last 22 games and he was rewarded with a return to the Scotland fold and a cap against Qatar.
“Leigh deserved to be involved with the Scotland squad for the Qatar and Republic of Ireland games. That was his reward for scoring goals and having a great end to the season,” said Collins
“I was always hopeful when Leigh said those things that he would change. As a coach you always want players to make a difference to the way they live and eat and sleep because you want them to get better and make the most of their ability.
“The change in Leigh was a gradual thing over weeks when he shed his body fat. The players are tested every ten days and they would be set targets in order to make progress.
“It was up to Leigh to embrace that and we gave him guidelines to take on board and he did that. He has noticed the difference in his performances with his sharpness, acceleration, stamina and endurance as these are all linked. Leigh was all over the pitch once he got his fitness up.”
With that change, Griffiths morphed into an asset for the side, putting defenders under pressure, providing an outlet for his team-mates and weighing in with goals.
With European qualifiers looming large, Collins is adamant the 24-year-old can take those improvements onto the bigger stage. “If you want to play at the top level, you have to be in top physical condition,” said the assistant manager. “He has made changes and the important thing for Leigh is to now kick on and take it to the next level. Leigh can definitely score goals for Celtic in the Champions League. If he gets a sight of goal then he is a fantastic striker of the ball and hits the target so often.
“He finished the season terrifically well both with the ball scoring goals but also his work ethic and effort was fantastic. He will be a big player for us. It is up to Leigh now to keep a hold of the striker’s shirt. He has proved to himself, the coaching staff and his team-mates that he could do it at Celtic. The key for Leigh now is to maintain it and not to be happy where he is and to keep trying to get better and better.”
With hopes that Griffiths has looked after himself properly and returns post summer break the same lean, mean, scoring machine, Collins believes that having captain Scott Brown available for the European qualifiers could enhance the level of performances and help the club improve on last term’s showings on that stage.
The midfielder, who suffered a hamstring injury in a pre-season friendly with Rapid Vienna, sat out the first few months of the season and was a frustrated onlooker as Celtic crumbled at the feet of Legia Warsaw in their second round of Champions League qualifiers.
“The Champions League is where you want to be, it’s the top of the tree and it’s where all the big boys are performing,” said Collins who is eagerly anticipating tomorrow’s Euro draw. “You get full stadiums, great atmospheres, television cameras from all over the world. That’s where he wants to be and where all the players want to be.
“I think there is no doubt we missed [Brown] hugely in the qualifiers last year – it goes without saying. He drives us forward and wins tackles. He wins possession and keeps the ball, he keeps the ball moving and drives his team-mates on. We did miss that. He’s very vocal and other players look to him.
“He sets the tone and leads by example. If one of the boys is maybe not quite at it, he will be straight on to them. He is sort of the coach on the pitch as well, driving them forward.”