Team-mates in youth football, at club level, and now on the international stage, Paul Hanlon and Leigh Griffiths will continue apace their blossoming and similarly-aligned careers at Stade Josy Barthel in Luxembourg this evening.
Alongside fellow Hibs stars Callum Booth and David Wotherspoon, Hanlon, below, and Griffiths are regulars in a Scotland under-21 team currently on a quest to reach the 2013 UEFA Championships in Israel.
Such a prestigious and far-flung stage could not be further removed, in football terms at least, from Edinburgh parks at Leith Links and Double Hedges, where Hanlon and Griffiths often clashed as fierce rivals in their school days before joining forces – albeit briefly – at Hutchison Vale.
From there, Hanlon joined Hibs, while Griffiths followed a rather more circuitous route to Easter Road via Livingston, Dundee, and Wolverhampton Wanderers, his parent club who in August loaned him to Colin Calderwood’s Hibs until January.
Despite the parallels between the paths followed by the two 21-year-olds, the contrast of Hanlon’s assured and steady approach with Griffiths’ explosive and fiery style was as evident in their early clashes as it is today when they both line up in green and white.
“Every game was a tussle with them, every game nip and tuck,” recalled Tam Currie, coach of the Leith Athletic team featuring Griffiths that rivalled Hanlon’s Hutchie in the early 2000s. “Leith and Hutchie were the two main teams at that age group and every fixture bore a bit of needle.
“You’ve got to remember Leigh was a hot-headed wee so-and-so – I’m sure Colin Calderwood will find out for himself what he’s like! I thought that would have held him back, but, he’s curbed it to get where he is.”
Paul Eddington, who coached the Inch Colts side that welcomed Griffiths after the youngster was released from his first spell at Hibs aged 14, witnessed early on the burgeoning promise of Griffiths and Hanlon that graces the national under-21 team today.
“Without a doubt, I could see it for miles,” said Eddington, now at Fernieside FC. “Before Leigh came to me, I thought his attitude would let him down, because he’d done a few naughty things when he was at Falkirk. But he certainly bucked up his ideas, and I think going to Hutchie gave him the discipline he needed.
“We were playing against Hutchie and Paul Hanlon was definitely one of the best defenders at that age group – he stuck out like a sore thumb. He’s always been cool, calm, and collected. You could tell he was destined for great things.”
The Evening News archives illustrate a colourful history of head-to-heads between the pair, both stand-out players in their respective rival youth teams. Griffiths of Leith Athletic put a Hutchie side skippered by Hanlon, left, to the sword on countless occasions before the flying left winger earned a move to Hibs, aged 12.
Griffiths spent two years at Hibs before being released and returned to youth football with Inch Colts. It wasn’t long before he experienced more pain on Hibs territory, going back to Easter Road for a final against Hutchie, where Hanlon and Co routed Colts 6-0.
In the age group below him at Inch, a certain Haddington youngster by the name of Callum Booth had begun to hone the skills that would earn him a move to Easter Road and see him graduate to the same Hibs and Scotland under-21 sides now frequented by Griffiths, Hanlon and Wotherspoon.
At this point in his football education, Griffiths had earned the nickname Sparky and had the fiery temperament to match his moniker. Aware of his reputation as something of a wildcard, he began to let his football, and not his notoriously loose tongue, do the talking.
“I think Sparky knew his own capabilities,” said his former coach Eddington. “He knew he was good, but his temperament at the early stages might have let him down. At Inch, he had calmed down and was great. I remember in the Scottish against Albion Boys Club, he got sent off up at Aberdeen, but when we came back to Inch he scored the winner in extra time with a free-kick into the top corner to win 4-3 at Double Hedges.”
Acts like that, and increasing his strike rate on a week-to-week basis in the SPL, would certainly strengthen Griffiths’ case for a first-team place in the Premiership at Wolves and help smooth his path to the full international team.
“It certainly does make you proud having had a boy like that under your wing, and I hope he moves on to the senior national team,” said Leith coach Currie. “I think he needs to score a few goals at club level before Craig Levein comes for him, though.”
As Scotland bid to kick-start their bid to reach Israel this evening, Hanlon and Griffiths may well play in front of a smaller crowd than they became accustomed to in their contests at Double Hedges and Leith Links, but they will no doubt be grateful that, this time, they are fighting for the same cause.