Leigh GRIFFITHS has a trophy cabinet groaning with the multitude of awards he has gathered over the past few weeks, symbols of an outstanding season by a player who has scored 28 goals for Hibs.
The Clydesdale Bank and the Scottish Football Writers’ Association’s player of the year, the 22-year-old was also named the outstanding young player by his fellow professionals in PFA Scotland and by the very fans who idolise him, the Hibs Supporters Association. His team-mates at Easter Road also voted him their best player as did the viewers of Hibs TV, those prizes topping a seemingly endless list of gongs acknowledging his achievements.
But unsurprisingly, the Easter Road hotshot today admitted he would willingly swap all the baubles and trinkets he has gathered in a whirlwind of glamour dinners around the country if he could only get his hands on a Scottish Cup winner’s medal on Sunday, something which, of course, has eluded all Hibs players for the past 111 years.
To do so would bring personal glory to each one of Pat Fenlon’s players, their names assured for evermore in the club’s history, but Griffiths insisted that unlike the individual awards he has enjoyed, it would mark the pinnacle of a real team effort and one – given the sides Hibs have faced in this year’s competition – which would be fully deserved.
Reflecting on the events of the past couple of weeks, Griffiths said: “It’s been surreal, but nice to get these awards at the end of the season. It’s not just for me, but for the team as well. Obviously I would not be where I am today if it was not for my team-mates, so every award I have picked up they have had a huge part to play in it.
“I’d definitely trade them all in for a Scottish Cup winner’s medal, 100 per cent. It’s nice to pick up individual awards but the Scottish Cup is a team award.”
Only six of the 14 players who faced Hearts in last sesaon’s final remain at Easter Road today, a measure of the rebuilding undertaken at Easter Road following a humiliation which will haunt Hibs for years to come, Fenlon having been forced, through circumstance, to pack his side with loan players as he fought to retain the club’s SPL status.
There has been much debate in the intervening months as to whether having so many players on short-term deals diluted the passion and desire. But while skipper James McPake argues otherwise, Griffiths insisted he detected a lack of understanding among his then team-mates as to the enormity of the occasion, not only a Scottish Cup final but the first such all-Edinburgh showdown in 116 years.
Asked what he felt he had learned from that experience, the lifelong Hibs fan said: “To enjoy it. Last year I don’t think we enjoyed it enough. I think there were too many people in the squad who did not know how big a game it was.”
Griffiths admitted he only reached that conclusion as events unfolded, but with Hibs back at Hampden for the second year in a row, he feels there is a real opportunity to make amends for last season’s debacle although, as each of Fenlon’s players has acknowledged during the course of this week, they face a tough task against the SPL champions.
The on-loan Wolves striker said: “We are going to have to play extremely well on the day and hopefully with a little bit of luck on our side we can win it. Celtic will be the overwhelming favourites, but you could say that all the pressure is on them to deliver the double and we just go there, play our normal game and hope that’s enough on the day.
“We have a few players who were there last year who know what it is about and hopefully that is to our advantage.”
Although at one time this season Fenlon’s players were jousting with Celtic at the very top of the table and enjoying an Easter Road victory over the Hoops thanks to a Griffiths goal, the second half of the campaign has been less noteworthy with, in effect, the Scottish Cup run retaining the fans’ interest, those victories over Hearts, Aberdeen, Kilmarnock and Falkirk deflecting, until recent weeks, away from less than satisfactory results which slowly but surely saw them slide down the rankings.
A six-match unbeaten run, starting with that stunning second-half fightback in the semi-final against Falkirk, stopped the rot, however, with Fenlon’s side winning their last three League games to finish seventh, giving them the momentum and confidence they believe was required ahead of the final.
Asked if he felt some things were “just meant to be,” having made it back to Hampden at the first time of asking, Griffiths said: “I would like to think so. There’s not many teams that go to a Scottish Cup final or a major cup final two years in a row and are beaten so, again, we have to try to use that to our advantage.
“We wanted to gather a wee bit of momentum going into the final and thankfully we have got that. We’ve won three games on the bounce and so we are going into the game in good spirits.”
Plenty of fighting spirit will also need to be shown on Sunday, but, Griffiths insisted, the battling qualities he and his team-mates possess were there for everyone to see in those dramatic 120 minutes against Falkirk. He said: “We looked dead and buried at 3-0 down, but then three minutes before half-time Ben Williams made a huge save that kind of spurred us on. Everyone had something to say in the dressing-room at half-time. But we knew if we could get an early goal Falkirk would tire around the 70 minute mark and that we had to keep plugging away.
“However, after I missed the penalty I thought that might be it. Luckily I got a goal soon after that and Eoin Dole scored with a great solo effort. Then in extra time I had one disallowed for offside, but was again lucky enough to get another.
“We battle right to the end in every game. We are not a soft touch, the gaffer has drilled that into us. The first 45 minutes against Falkirk were unacceptable for a club of Hibs’ size and standards, but we knew we had to get back out there and put in a performance which we did in the second half and extra time.”
And if it goes all the way to 120 minutes and beyond on Sunday, Griffiths insisted he will be happy – so long as Hibs win. Admitting he has dreamed of climbing those Hampden steps to collect what Hibs fans see as the ultimate reward, he said: “It was the same last year, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“Hopefully I can turn it around and make sure I am going up to lift a winner’s medal and the Cup. It doesn’t matter how – 90 minutes, extra time, penalties. I don’t care how we do it as long as we do it, but as I have said it is a huge ask as Celtic are a great team and we are going to have to be at our best.”