As the Dundee United defender slipped, Leigh Griffiths latched onto the ball like a predator on its prey. He was focussed, single minded of purpose and supremely confident. One touch steadied the ball before he thrashed a low shot under the goalkeeper and into the Dundee United net. It was goal number 50 in a Celtic shirt for Griffiths in just 87 games and later he was to add number 51. The referee booked him for displaying a t shirt with the number 50 on it but we can forgive Leigh that cheap yellow card as he reached a milestone in the Hoops. Yet when Neil Lennon signed Griffiths in January 2014 there were many among the Celtic support who worried that his off field antics might well make him a liability or even an embarrassment to the club. Neil Lennon was aware of Griffiths’ baggage and said at the time…
‘I spoke to Leigh about his responsibilities as a Celtic player and to be wary of things away from the park,’ he said. ‘We’ll look after him here all we can and I don’t think he’ll have a problem adapting to the way we play. Now he’s at a big club and he’s got to get used to the intensity of playing for Celtic and the public perception of him. He just needs to change people’s views and he can do that through his football first and foremost. I don’t think people should judge him on his past. Just judge him on his football ability. It’s up to me then to manage all the other stuff that comes with it. Sometimes you prefer them with a wee bit of personality about them. I like the gallus players anyway. He’s certainly got a gallus nature on the pitch although I don’t think he’s ill-disciplined or anything like that when he plays. He knows the responsibilities involved in coming here. He’s just got to mind himself away from the park and we’ll do all we can to help him.’
Griffiths in those early months at Celtic Park made some errors which I’m sure he now regrets. His much publicised spat on Twitter during which a chap with an Asian sounding name, who was undoubtedly baiting him, was told… ‘F**k off back to your own country, ya clown,’ did not go down well with the majority of Celtic supporters. Most understood and accepted as banter his next indiscretion when he was filmed singing ‘The Hearts are going bust’ in a pub full of Hibs fans. Celtic fans have had much fun out of similar jibes towards their traditional rivals in Govan as they stumbled out of existence in 2012. However there was consternation when he was later filmed in a pub full of Hibs supporters who were singing ‘Rudi Skacel is a f***ing refugee.’ Griffiths’ role in the singing is still disputed but Celtic supporters, many of whom are the progeny of refugees who fled Ireland in the post famine years, were not happy. Some called for his dismissal while others suggested he should be dropped from the team. I reasoned at the time that he needed to realise the responsibilities which come when you are a Celtic player. The fans let Griffiths know their feelings during a match with Inverness in the wake of the ‘refugee’ chants when they unfurled banners reading ‘A man must be a Celt on and off the field otherwise he is of no use to this club.’ Those words by Willie Maley were apt and echoed down the decades. It is also worth noting that before that Inverness game tens of thousands of Celtic supporters loudly applauded the memory of the late Sandy Jardine. The former Rangers player was a fine footballer who conducted himself with class and dignity on and off the field. He was a fierce rival but a sporting and decent man and the Celtic support could respect that. For young men like Griffiths, such men are good role models.
Since then Leigh Griffiths seems to have had an epiphany of sorts and realised that if he was to make a career of note at Celtic Park then he must not only develop as a player, but also as a man. We have all been guilty of the odd indescretion in our lives but we are marked out by our ability to learn from them and move on. Neil Lennon, no stranger to controversy himself, said at the time, ‘We’ve all made mistakes but I think the kid will come good. I think he’ll learn from it and have a good career here.’ Griffiths seems to have learned from his errors and realised at last that he is a Celtic player and with that comes responsibility. He is maturing as a player and is now seen as the main goal threat in the Celtic side. Like all strikers he has the odd game where it doesn’t run for him but he is a more consistent, stronger and fitter player these days. To rack up 51 goals in 87 games is a very decent strike rate, indeed the last player to hit 50 in fewer games was Charlie Nicholas in the early 1980s. The Celtic support is now warming to the man from Leith after a problematic period in his early Celtic career.
We are all due a second chance in life and Leigh Griffiths seems to realise that to make the most of his undoubted talents he needs to be a professional both on and off the field. He needs to turn the other cheek when the predictable abuse from other fans comes and answer them in the best way possible by sticking the ball in the net. His renaissance at Celtic is only just beginning and the 25 year old has worked hard to move forward in his life and career. He now has a real chance to become a Celtic player of real distinction and join the long list of great Celtic strikers. It’s up to him to grasp this chance with both hands. I hope he does because he is that rare creature; a natural goal scorer. Over to you Leigh.