It’s amazing what scoring two incredible freekicks in the space of 4 minutes in the powder keg atmosphere of a Scotland vs. England match can do for your reputation. Derided pre-match in certain quarters as not being International class or for only scoring goals in a ‘tin-pot league’, Leigh Griffiths has since been catapulted to the forefront of the English football media’s attention. All of a sudden a player who was previously not fit to lace the boots of Harry Kane or Jermain Defoe is now being talked of as a future English Premiership striker having been linked with moves to West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United; because scoring 40 goals in a single season and scoring in European competitions for Celtic just wasn’t worthy of note down south.
Celtic fans however have been well aware of Leigh Griffiths’ abilities over the past couple of seasons, as have fans of just about every club he has faced in the green and white hoops, and, while it may be unusual to see a player score two freekicks in the one game, it has not been an unusual sight to see Griffiths pop up with vital goals during his career as a whole to date.
Signed by Neil Lennon during his final transfer window in January 2014, Griffiths has gone on to make 142 appearances for Celtic thus far scoring on 84 occasions, giving him a return of better than a goal every other game. His signing, however, was not universally well received among the Celtic support due to prior off field misdemeanours whilst at Hibernian. For some, Griffiths was not a ‘Celtic ‘player, certainly not in terms of his perceived attitude at the time of signing. His goal scoring record however was not, or at least should not have been called into question as Griffiths had amassed 111 goals in just 224 professional games throughout the divisions in both Scotland and England before signing on the dotted line at Celtic Park.
Despite his impressive scoring record his signing was, at these very pages described it, “the typical marmite signing; you either love it or hate it“, It’s fair to say that over the last 3 and half years Griffiths has won over his early doubters and, as also suggested here, has, at the very least, made a similar impact at Celtic as Gary Hooper – the striker he was ultimately signed to replace – during his time at the club.
Griffiths’ arrival during the winter of 2013/14 was in stark contrast to the clubs three previous striker signings that same season; Amido Balde, Teemu Pukki, and fellow January purchase Holmbert Fridjonsson all being project singings, players the club hoped to develop and sell on for a profit, although ultimately all ended up leaving the club for free or for substantially less than they were signed for. Griffiths however, despite only being 23 at the time, came with a proven record of scoring goals in the Scottish top-flight having netted 39 times in 78 games during a two year loan spell at Hibernian. He might not have been everyone’s first choice but he at least knew where the net was and showed his predatory instincts by scoring his first Celtic goal in just his third appearance for the club, against Hearts of all teams and ended his first half season as a hoop with 7 goals in 14 appearances.
Despite his promising start Griffiths was marginalised from the starting eleven during the first half of the 2014/15 season by Ronny Deila, who had replaced Lennon as manager during the summer pre-season, with fitness issues cited as the reason. However, the Norwegian also favoured a system with just a single striker, and, initially favoured John Guidetti, Anthony Stokes, and Stefan Scepovic ahead of Griffiths.
A loan move back to his boyhood club Hibernian was mooted however Griffiths strength of character shone through as he worked hard to improve his game and win back his starting place in the side, eventually finishing the season as top scorer and number 1 striker. His cause of course helped by that goal against the new Rangers at Hampden in the first meeting of the clubs in February 2015.
If the second half of 2014/15 had helped Griffiths to emerge as Celtic’s first choice striker, then 2015/16 would be the season he cemented his place by virtue of notching 40 goals in just 51 appearances; including his first goals in European competition. During the season he scored his 50th goal for Celtic, becoming the fastest player since Charlie Nicholas to achieve this feat, eclipsing the likes of Henrik Larsson and John Hartson. A new contract duly followed tying Griff to the club until 2021 as did a third League winners medal along with the PFA Scotland, Scottish Football Writers, and Scottish Premiership Player of the Year Awards. Not bad for a player whose Celtic career had been in doubt just the previous season.
The arrival of Moussa Dembele in the summer of 2016 however presented yet another challenge to Griffiths place in the Celtic starting eleven with new manager Brendan Rodgers (Griffiths third manager during his time at Celtic) electing to play the young Frenchman over the previously free-scoring Griffiths. Once again finding himself with work to do to maintain a place in the managers plans, Griffiths knuckled down made the most of any starting opportunities that came his way, ending the season in the starting eleven, although was in part due to injury to Dembele, and with a healthy return of 18 goals from 37 appearances, averaging a goal every 114 minutes that he was on the pitch.
During the past 3 and a half seasons Celtic fans have watched Griffiths develop and mature from a tempestuous and at times ill-disciplined centre forward with a natural goal scoring talent, into a deadly and composed, almost all round attacker. While not the tallest, Griffiths has shown his aerial ability on numerous occasions and his speed off the mark and vicious shot make him a handful to defend against with the ball at his feet. His mental approach to the game has also developed and helped him see off a host of competitors for a starting berth, as has willingness to work on and improve all facets of his game in order to prove his worth to the team and the manager; his assist for Moussa Dembele’s winner in the League Cup semi-final highlighting a new found unselfishness and ability to dig deep for the benefit of the team.
Furthermore Griffiths ability to perform in the big games should not be underestimated. Goals against Astana (home and away) and Be’er Sheva in Europe, including another spectacular freekick, along with goals in important domestic fixtures against Aberdeen and at Ibrox have helped Griffiths stake his claim as key member of the Celtic squad who can be relied upon when it matters most.
In short: Leigh Griffiths is much more than the sum of two excellent freekicks against England. He is a natural goal scorer, a team player, and a highly prized asset at Celtic Park well loved by the fans. And long may that continue.