Leigh GRIFFITHS openly admits he probably wouldn’t be mingling with the cream of Scottish football at the national team’s plush Mar Hall base on the south bank of the River Clyde if it wasn’t for the influence of Pat Fenlon.
The Wolves forward has never been slow to credit the Easter Road manager for getting him back on the straight and narrow during those awkward times, particularly in his first season at Hibs, when his at-times destructive temperament was threatening to derail his career.
As a result, Griffiths is thrilled that Fenlon appears to have ridden out his own storm and salvaged his job in the wake of a harrowing summer in which Malmo, Motherwell and Hearts combined to pile the pressure on the Irishman. The former Easter Road talisman was never in any doubt that his old mentor would turn things round but, nonetheless, watching on television from his Midlands home, he took no end of satisfaction from seeing Fenlon’s side grind out victory at Partick Thistle on Monday to move up to joint fourth in the Scottish Premiership just weeks after being widely written off.
“It’s good to see Hibs getting back on track,” said the 23-year-old boyhood Hibee. “I watched them on the TV on Monday and although they didn’t play the best, they got the three points and that’s all that matters. I’m happy for Pat. If you lose 7-0 at home, it’s always going to be hard to take, but I knew he would turn it round because he’s a good manager. He’s also a good guy and the fans just need to give him a little bit more time because he’s brought a lot of new faces in over the summer. Hopefully they can get a run going now.”
Griffiths knows Hibs shouldn’t be losing 7-0 at home to anyone, but he’s glad Fenlon didn’t pay with his job. “Pat’s generally improved the team since he came and he’s had them in a couple of cup finals,” he said. “If you lose 7-0 at home any manager’s going to take a bit of flak, but people forget that Malmo were half-way through their season and Hibs had barely finished their pre-season. Hibs had about four teenagers playing and had brought in a lot of new faces, so there was always a danger something like that could happen.
“I’ve said it before that Pat has been massive for developing my career. He helped me settle down and got me concentrating on football again. People say Pat’s a negative manager, but I never found that. The way he set his team up last season didn’t exactly do me or Eoin Doyle any harm.”
The 28 goals he scored for Hibs last season catapulted Griffiths prominently into the thoughts of Scotland manager Gordon Strachan and new Wolves boss Kenny Jackett. After a couple of false dawns at Molineux, where he first moved almost three years ago from Livingston, Griffiths is finally enjoying the chance to make a name for himself down south. “I have said since I signed for them two-and-a-half years ago that all I wanted was the chance to prove myself,” he said. “I just wanted the chance to show people I could score goals down there. People at Wolves didn’t really know a lot about me before I went out on loan, but my performances for Hibs opened their eyes a bit and they said, ‘We need this guy back.’ I have gone back and shown the people who didn’t know me what I can do. I’ve got seven goals in ten games, so hopefully I can keep that run going.”
While some observers felt Griffiths had taken a step down by moving to League One after tearing up the SPL last season, the player himself believes the English third tier is of a marginally higher standard than Scotland’s top flight. “The SPL was a good league, but I’d say it is harder to score in League One,” he explained. “You have a lot more games and it is lot more demanding. Some teams play like SPL teams and others get the ball down a lot more and play from the back. Only a few teams, like St Mirren, do that in the SPL. League One is a physical league but I have been in the gym working hard with the fitness coaches since pre-season. It might be the third tier of English football, but Wolves still get massive crowds. We had 24,000 at our game against Sheffield United. The Wolves fans expect us to win every week and we demand that of ourselves because we’re such a big club in the division and we’re hoping to go straight back up to the Championship. The big crowds don’t bother me, I don’t feel the pressure.”
Having finally established himself at Wolves, Griffths is enjoying life in the Black Country. “The Wolves fans have taken to me well,” he continues. “I’m finding it fine down there. I was in a hotel for a few weeks until I found a house. I’ve moved in now and I’m just glad to be playing every week. The manager’s been great with me. The games come thick and fast down the road, so when you do have time off you’re just recovering for the next game. I’ve only had the chance to get back up to Edinburgh once since the summer and I got along to Easter Road for the Stranraer game. It was nice to take in a game while I was up.”
Having made his first start for Scotland in that famous win in Croatia at the end of last season, some felt Griffiths might be dashing his hopes of a prolonged run in the squad when he joined a Wolves side who had just been relegated from the Championship. The player himself had no such concerns. “Jordan Rhodes was in league One when he got his Scotland chance,” he said. “He was scoring goals every week for Huddersfield, so I am just looking at him as a role model and know that, if you are playing well and scoring goals, the manager is going to have to think about you. Obviously, every player wants to be playing in the Premiership. But the Championship is the next best thing and it’s a very good standard with a lot of big clubs. There are a lot of big clubs in League One as well: ourselves, Sheffield United, Peterborough.”
Speaking of role models and climbing up the English leagues, Griffiths also takes heart from the rise of former Hibs and Wolves forward Steven Fletcher, who last year moved to Sunderland for a fee in the region of £12 million. “I was good friends with Fletch when I first signed for Wolves,” he recalls. “He took me under his wing and showed me about the place so I was sad to see him go. He’s done really well for Sunderland and he would be in the Scotland squad if he wasn’t injured. Hopefully he makes a speedy recovery and I can see him in the next squad.”
With Fletcher and Rhodes injured and Kenny Miller having hung up his international boots, Griffiths will be vying with Steven Naismith to lead the line as Scotland bring down the curtain on their World Cup campaign at home to Croatia on Tuesday. He admits he is still getting to grips with the increased demands of international football, but views the upcoming match as an opportunity to further establish himself in Strachan’s squad. “I’m not going to lie, it is a step up. The defenders at international level are bigger and sharper. Against Belgium, we were playing against guys who are rated at £20m plus, and they are all 6ft 4in tall. I am not the biggest of guys, so I have got to shut them down and try to work hard for the team. Kenny Miller did it for years for Scotland and he is one of the best guys to look up to.
“I hope I can establish myself by the end of this campaign. But, if I don’t get my chance, I just have to go back to my club and play well and hope that when the next squad is announced, I am in it again and can show the manager what I can do.”