There are some who want Leigh Griffiths wrapped in cotton wool, protected from the potentially bruising effects of an Edinburgh derby just two weeks before Hibs face SPL champions Celtic in the final of the Scottish Cup.
The force of their argument is strong and easily understood. The 22-year-old is a talismanic figure for the Easter Road club, his 27 goals so far this season testament to his value to Pat Fenlon’s side and shows just how much of a vital component he could be in Hibs’ bidd to end their 111-year Scottish Cup hoodoo.
So why, then, risk him at Tynecastle on Sunday in what, it could be said, is one of the less meaningful matches between the Capital’s big two in many years? After all, the prize at stake, apart from the bragging rights, is one of the minor placings within the SPL table, given both have been condemned to finishing in the bottom six.
Griffiths himself, though, is desperate to play and, he insisted, will resist as far as he can any move by his boss Fenlon to shield him from the rough and tumble of derby day action.
While he can appreciate the sentiment behind the “don’t risk him” train of thought, Griffiths can list any number of reasons as to why he is determined to take to the field with that No. 9 shirt on his back. The magnitude and meaning of the match to the fans of both clubs, regardless of where Hibs and Hearts may currently lie in the greater scheme of things, is one of those for a start.
Pride, Hibs’ desire to hear the final blast of referee Steven McLean’s whistle signal an entire season without having tasted defeat by the Jambos throughout the entire season, and the need to clock up a first SPL win against their near neighbours since Derek Riordan’s penalty in Gorgie secured victory four years ago also come into play.
And for Griffiths, there is one further, more personal reason for wanting to see his name in Fenlon’s starting X1 – the chance to become the first Hibs player in 40 years to score 30 goals in a season, a feat last achieved by both Alan Gordon and Jimmy O’Rourke.
As a lifelong Hibs fan Griffiths fully appreciates what it would mean to have his name mentioned in the same sentence as two club legends.
The 22-year-old told the Evening News: “It would be massive, I’m three goals away from it with four games to go and I want to play. I’ve only missed one game all season and want to play in every one of our last four matches.
“The manager has been resting up some of the boys over the past couple of weeks with the final in mind, but he hasn’t spoken to me. It is his decision, of course, and if he wants to give me a rest it will be up to him, but if it’s this Sunday, then I’ll be pleading with him to play.
“I want to hit that target of 30 goals and obviously I’d love to take a step closer to it by getting another one at Tynecastle.”
Having been ahead of their biggest rivals for much of the season, Hibs go into the latest derby trailing Hearts by a point, the Jambos’ 3-0 win over St Mirren seeing them leapfrog Fenlon’s side for the first time since August although, because of the tragic circumstances surrounding the abandonment of Hibs match at Rugby Park the following day, they will have a game in hand.
Griffiths, however, insisted he and his team-mates only have eyes for ending the weekend back on top. He said: “We know it’s going to be tough, but we are going there to win, nothing less. We want to finish top of the bottom six and we’re determined to get the three points.
“We are unbeaten against Hearts in four games this season, but while it was great to win the Scottish Cup match against them, the three league games have all ended in draws.”
Griffiths, of course, could point to the fact that if it hadn’t been for referee Euan Norris and his assistant Raymond Whyte failing to spot his long-range shot had cross the line the last time the two teams met then that particular stalemate would have been broken, not to mention the fact Hibs would be ahead of Hearts going into Sunday’s match and he would be a goal closer to his target of 30.
But while Norris’ blunder was met by incredulity all round, not least by Griffiths himself, the Hibs ace is more concerned with the immediate future than the past. He said: “A derby is a hard game, but we know we are capable of beating any team on our day, as we have shown throughout the season.
“It’s an early kick-off, so we have to make sure we turn up on the day. We want to remain unbeaten against Hearts this season, but we want to win this one. It’s long overdue.”
Riordan’s penalty winner in Gorgie was met with howls of derision from the home support and Griffiths insisted hearing them on his back at the final whistle will be music to his ears.
He said: “I like playing at Tynecastle, the fans are right on top of you. I know there will be a lot of abuse, but that’s part and parcel of football. If I get plenty of it for scoring the winning goal then I’ll be more than happy.”