AT the end of another rollercoaster week in the life of Leigh Griffiths, the on-loan Hibs striker will enjoy something of a love-in at Easter Road on Saturday.
Not only will the green and white army be eager to show their appreciation for their top scorer after it was confirmed that he will remain at his boyhood club until the end of the season at least, but the visiting Dundee supporters will also be keen to hail “Sparky”, who became a cult hero during his year-and-a-half at Dens Park before his move to Wolves.
Indeed, such is the bond between Griffiths and the Tayside club, he has been spotted sitting among the Dundee fans during away games at Kilmarnock and Livingston this season. The 22-year-old endeared himself to the Dens Park faithful by running his heart out for the cause at a time when the club lurched into administration. His 31 goals in less than 50 starts for the Dark Blues caught the attention of Wolves, who paid around £150,000 for his services, a fee which went a long way to helping Dundee through their dire financial predicament.
Former Dens Park colleague Nicky Riley knows how highly-regarded Griffiths is on Tayside and is delighted to see his old mate prospering with Hibs. After finally having his short-term future resolved this week when Wolves allowed him to stay at Easter Road until the end of the season, Riley, a 26-year-old Leither, expects Griffiths to be relishing Saturday’s SPL showdown.
“It’ll be a big day for Sparky so he’ll be wanting to impress,” said the Dundee winger. “He scored a lot of goals at Dundee and the fans remember that. He’s got a good relationship with our fans so I’m sure they’ll give him a good clap on Saturday. The fact he still comes along to watch our games when Hibs are not playing is really decent from Sparky and just shows how much of a bond he still has with the club. It’s good for the SPL to keep players like Sparky in the league. He scores a lot of goals and from the point of view of Hibs and the league, it’s a good thing that he’s staying. He can score goals out of nothing. He might not be having the best game, but he’s always a threat and is always likely to score you a goal.
“He’s scored goals wherever he’s been, so Hibs will be delighted to keep him. He’s done really well at Hibs, so we know he’ll be dangerous.”
As well as extending his stay at Hibs, Griffiths has also been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons over the past week after sending a controversial tweet to one of his followers while on a train back up from Wolverhampton a week past Thursday.
Allied to previous misdemeanours such as persistent gesturing to fans and a well-documented spat with manager Pat Fenlon last season, his ill-advised tweet raised further questions about his temperament. Riley, however, insists his old colleague is anything but a hell-raiser.
“Sparky seems to have a bit of reputation, but I’ve never seen a bad side to him at all,” he said. “He’s always been focused on his football and was always a good team player. I was pretty pally with him when he was at Dundee. He stayed in Dundee but now and again he would travel down in the car with us to Edinburgh. He’s a good a guy, I always got on well with him. He’s not even a loud guy, he’s quite quiet off the pitch. He’s a nice guy and I’ve never had any problems with him. I think he just needs to concentrate on what he’s doing on the pitch and keep scoring goals and make sure people talk about that side of him.”
Saturday’s game will also be a big occasion for Riley, who, like Griffiths, was a boyhood Hibs fan. “For me, the games against Hibs, Hearts, Dundee United and Celtic are the first ones I looked for at the start of the season, but as a boyhood Hibs fan from Leith, going to Easter Road is the one I really look forward to,” he said. “I was a Hibs ballboy, so I used to go to all the games, and I also played for them when I was younger. I’ve also got a lot of family and friends who are Hibs fans. My pals will be at the game on Saturday, so I’m sure they’ll be giving me abuse and picking me up on anything I do wrong. ”
Riley will be part of a Dundee squad arriving at Easter Road a mammoth nine points adrift at the bottom of the SPL. Having lost 3-0 at Easter Road back in October, the Dark Blues gained revenge a month later with a 3-1 victory at Dens. That mid-November success, however, remains Dundee’s last league win, a state of affairs that Riley knows they need to address pronto if they are to remain in the top flight.
“We definitely still believe we can stay up but we need to go on a wee run now,” he said. “We know it’s going to be hard, but the players all still have confidence that we can do it. We’ve had a wee bit time off, so all the players are back in and looking forward to Saturday.
“We’re confident we can go to Easter Road and pick up some points. It’ll be a hard game because they beat us 3-0 there the last time and they’re having a really good season. They’ll also be looking for revenge for us beating them at Dens Park. We’ll take heart from that game, though.”