It is not hard to envisage Leigh Griffiths scoring against Hibs, then raising his hands apologetically towards the travelling support at Celtic Park on Saturday.
“Leigh Griffiths, he’s one of our own” was the chant which rang out round Easter Road during the Leith-born Hibs supporter’s two goal-laden, career-reigniting seasons on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Ever since reluctantly returning to his parent club at the end of the 2012/13 campaign, in which he scored 28 of his 39 goals for Hibs, Griffiths has retained a strong affinity with his boyhood club, regularly attending their matches whenever commitments allow.
Indeed, there was a point three years ago – some eight months after having been signed for Celtic from Wolves by, ironically, Neil Lennon – that Griffiths looked like he might be on his way back to Hibs. Alan Stubbs, shortly after taking over, was keen to sign him and the player, frustrated by a lack of game time at Celtic under Ronny Deila, was eager to return east. In the end, no deal could be struck and Griffiths duly started making inroads at Parkhead.
More than 100 goals after leaving Easter Road just over four years ago, the burgeoning Griffiths – now firmly established as Scotland’s main striker – is ready to play against Hibs for the first time in his ten-and-half year career in the senior game.
“Leigh never hid the fact he was a Hibs supporter; you could tell it was a big thing for him, especially when the derbies came round,” said Tim Clancy, a team-mate of Griffiths during his second season at Hibs.
“I think his time at Hibs was very important. He got a good move to Wolves as a young lad, but it was hard for him to get into the first team on a regular basis, so the two years he had on loan at Hibs obviously got him playing regular football and scoring goals again.
“From a development point of view, being at Hibs was a huge part of his career. And obviously it was a big thing for him personally as well because he was playing for the team he’d supported all his life. I think playing for his home team and having his family around him probably helped bring out the best in him. I don’t think any Hibs fan would begrudge him the career he’s having at Celtic just now. I think every Hibs fans appreciated the effort he put in for the club so he’ll definitely get a good reception from the Hibs supporters on Saturday.”
After building his reputation as a free-scoring young maverick with Livingston and Dundee in Scotland’s lower leagues, Griffiths was in need of a career boost when, having just turned 21, Colin Calderwood brought him to Hibs on loan in August 2011 after he had failed to register a single appearance for Wolves since making his big move from Dundee to the Midlands club in January of that year.
His first season at Hibs was mixed, although he still managed 11 goals in a team haunted by relegation and forced to change manager midway through, with Pat Fenlon replacing Calderwood. Griffiths’ best moment of his first season in Leith came when he scored a late winner against Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup semi-final, although most Hibs fans would soon wish that goal never happened as it paved the way for Hearts to crush their team in the final a month later.
Despite the chastening nature of his first season, Griffiths, still with no hint of game time at Wolves, was thrilled to return to Edinburgh on loan for a second season. It would prove to be the campaign which properly ignited his career, bringing him 28 goals, two in Edinburgh derbies (although it should have been three), two in a Scottish Cup semi-final victory over Falkirk, a winner against Celtic, a full debut for Scotland and the Scottish Football Writers’ Player of the Year award even though his side finished a once-promising campaign in the bottom six.
Ironically, his two seasons with Hibs concluded with a 3-0 Scottish Cup final defeat against a Celtic side managed by Lennon and featuring Anthony Stokes and Efe Ambrose, all of whom will be in the visiting dressing-room this Saturday.
“We were top of the league in November and Leigh was a huge part in that,” recalls Clancy. “At Hibs he maybe had a bit more leeway to try things he perhaps wouldn’t at Celtic, which meant he scored some incredible goals for Hibs when he might have passed at Celtic and then looked to get himself in the box.
“I remember being away at Dundee United, they had a corner, but we broke, Leigh picked the ball up in his own half, ran with it and hit it from about 30 yards out on the left and it flew into the top corner. I don’t know many players who would even have the confidence to shoot from there – never mind score.
“His finishing in training was something else – you’ve never seen anything like it.
“There was also the free-kick against Hearts that crossed the line and wasn’t given. It was moments like that where you thought ‘he’s special’. His consistency with his left foot is phenomenal. You could tell that season, no disrespect to Hibs, that he was going to go on and play for a bigger club.”
Griffiths’ fruitful stint at Hibs eventually persuaded Wolves that he was worthy of some game time in League One. After banging in 13 goals in the first half of the 2013/14 campaign, he earned his big move to Celtic in January 2014.
Clancy believes that the success he is now enjoying for club and country is a reflection of the raw enthusiasm the 27-year-old has for his work.
“He puts everything into his football,” said Clancy. “He’s all action – he runs until the soles of his boots come off and he scores goals. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player enjoy their football as much as him. He was constantly wanting to play little games and do shooting practice and things like that. You can see how he plays and the way he is when he scores that he just loves football. His face lights up when he scores. He lives for that buzz of hitting the back of the net. He’s a big-moment player.
“Whenever you need someone to deliver in a pressure situation, he thrives, as you saw with his goals for Scotland against England.
“No disrespect to any of the guys at Hibs, buy he’s playing with far superior players at Celtic and at international level than he was with us, and he’s thriving on that. We were maybe looking for a bit of inspiration or individual quality from him to win us games at Hibs, whereas now at Celtic he has players around him like Scott Sinclair, Tom Rogic, Patrick Roberts, Scott Brown and James Forrest to take the weight off him. At Celtic, he’s generally finishing off moves whereas at Hibs he was often starting and finishing off moves. I think having better players around him has brought out the best in him.”