FOR any footballer who makes the headlines for the wrong reasons, often the best way to hit back is to score goals. At East End Park on Saturday, Leigh Griffiths did just that.
The on-loan Hibs striker had courted controversy in recent weeks. Given a one-match ban for an obscene gesture at Rangers fans during Hibs’ 2-0 defeat in December, the 21-year-old then incurred the same penalty for the same offence, only this time his outburst was directed at his own fans in the club’s 3-2 win over Cowdenbeath in the Scottish Cup a week and a half ago.
Griffiths, however, struck back in the perfect fashion. His double against fellow relegation candidates Dunfermline not only gave the Easter Road club a four-point gap over their rivals, but it also showed the Hibs faithful what Griffiths really can offer to Hibs.
The Scotland under-21 internationalist was bought by Wolves last season from Dundee and there is little doubt that Mick McCarthy, his manager at Molineux, felt he was bringing in a player who, in time, would be ready for the Premiership. Griffiths’ most recent outings have shown that there is most definitely that potential there.
His goals against Dunfermline were two fine strikes. His first, with his weaker right foot, was taken in a pressure moment. One-nil down, Griffiths hit a bouncing through ball true and firm beneath the Pars keeper Ian Turner. The connection itself was impressive but perhaps more important was the lucid, clinical nature he showed to bury the chance.
The same attributes were in evidence when he netted Hibs’ winner. Dunfermline had just equalised and had their tails up. Griffiths did extremely well to show for a pass from Lewis Stevenson, hold off and spin John Potter and then catch Turner out with a ferocious left-footed shot at the keeper’s near post.
Griffiths’ ability to strike a ball is one of his main attributes and Hibs have tapped into that this season. Most of his goals have come at crucial moments. Against St Mirren in October, he netted a wonderful, hooked shot that gave Hibs a priceless 3-2 win, while against Kilmarnock in a 1-1 draw in December, he slotted home Hibs’ equaliser from an absurdly acute angle. Even against Cowdenbeath, when his tirade led to his ban, the goal that prompted it was delightful – a wicked, vicious shot that arrowed into the top corner from distance.
There is more to Griffiths’ game that just goals, however, despite the fact that he’s netted seven in his last 12 appearances. He has pace to burn and is able to utilise that in either channel. Many times this season, and in particular against Dunfermline, has he pulled central defenders out wide to create space for onrushing midfielders or his strike partners. Opposition defenders have rarely been given a moment’s rest.
The current Hibs manager, Pat Fenlon, and his predecessor, Colin Calderwood, have all used Griffiths in a variety of positions and more often than not, he’s not been found wanting. He has played as a left winger, a right winger, part of a two up top or on his own.
His performance against Hearts was one of the few bright spots for Hibs, as Griffiths never looked bullied by Andy Webster and competed manfully with a player much bigger than him. The way he held off Potter and Alex Keddie on Saturday against Dunfermline showed he is strong and capable enough to rough it out in attack.
Fenlon, speaking after Griffiths received his ban for his gesture at Cowdenbeath, stressed that the striker must behave better, or he’d be “sitting in the stand” more often than not. It’s a warning he appeared to heed against Dunfermline with his performance. One man who was used to speaking to Griffiths for poor conduct was his former manager at Dundee, Jocky Scott. He brought Griffiths to Dens Park in 2009 and recalls the problems he had with him, but also agrees that he has the potential to progress into a top player at Hibs.
“I had cause to speak to him behind closed doors often, about various things, at Dundee,” said Scott, who was caretaker manager of Hibs in 1996. “When managers, coaches, and players take him aside and have a quiet word with him, he needs to begin to take things on board.
“I would put the gestures to the crowd down to stupidity. You don’t like it – nobody likes being shouted at by the fans – but, unfortunately, that’s part and parcel of the game. The best way to get the fans on your side is to do what he did at the weekend. I saw the gesture at the Cowdenbeath game – he scores a great goal and he should be taking the applause of the fans for that.
“He’s a great asset to the team [though]. He can play – he has a decent touch and can see a pass and link-up – but the main ingredients are his pace and scoring goals. He needs to play, week in, week out, which he is doing. He needs to curtail the silly stuff, get his head down and score goals.
“Every player becomes a better player with confidence. Leigh’s definitely a player when he’s on a goalscoring run, he’s confident that he’ll score.”
It seems Griffiths has already done that. His goals at Dunfermline were vital and showed Hibs fans what he’s capable of doing for the remainder of the season.
He was lauded by the green and white faithful packed into the ground before, during and after the final whistle, and he appeared genuinely touched by the reception he received. Atonement, it seems, has begun, and if it’s to continue in the form of goals, then Hibs fans have much to look forward to.