Criticism rained down from the Rugby Park stands and even the Sky Sports TV studio. But Leigh Griffiths swatted aside the abuse to help Celtic maintain their narrow lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership.
Griffiths has two goals in as many games since the winter break finished after adding to his strike against Partick Thistle on the weekend with the second goal in Celtic’s 3-1 win over Kilmarnock. Goalkeeper Jan Koprivec will feel he should have done better with the effort, but it’s these moments that will bring the confidence back for the 29-year old. He also provided the assist for Celtic’s third with a terrific out-swinging corner for Christopher Jullien.
— Celtic TV (@CelticTV) January 23, 2020
Sadly, his contributions have been overshadowed by off-the-field events. Neil Lennon stepped in to defend Griffiths after he appeared to throw tape at a vocal Killie fan when being subbed off. That came after he pointedly aimed his goal celebration towards former Rangers striker Kris Boyd, who was a pundit on the game for Sky Sports. Boyd has come under fire for his comments suggesting Griffiths lack of professionalism is the reason for him having missed so many games, ignoring the mental health issues which saw him take an extended break from the game. The best way for him to shut the sceptics up is to keep scoring and try to return to a level close to his best.
Getting back to his form of 2015/16 would be his greatest career achievement. There should also be no pressure on him to do so given those personal problems. Looking back at his prolific time at Celtic, particularly under Ronny Deila, highlights how difficult that task would be.
Becoming Celtic’s number nine
Lennon was the man who brought Griffiths to the club in January 2014. The lure of Paradise and European football proved too much as Celtic poached him from then League One side Wolves. A settling in period saw him score seven goals in 14 appearances and pick up his first league winners medal (all stats: Fitba Stats). Griffiths trajectory from there can give Celtic’s newest January recruit, Patryk Klimala, inspiration for his own Parkhead career.
Deila replaced Lennon that summer but didn’t immediately make Griffiths first choice. Instead, it was John Guidetti who regularly lead the line. By Christmas, Griffiths only had two league goals and four in all competitions. Like any player, he thrives most when given an extended run in the team. At the turn of the year, he got just that.
As Guidetti’s form fell off, the Scot capitalised. His first Old Firm derby goal – the opener in the League Cup semi-final – ensured his status as a fan favourite. Hat-tricks against Kilmarnock and Dundee United helped him break the 20-goal barrier for the season. In the summer he was presented with the number nine jersey, symbolising his position as Celtic’s main man. The best, though, was yet to come.
Griffiths 2015/16 campaign was one of the most spectacular in recent Scottish history. He became the first Celt since Henrik Larsson to score 40 goals in a single season. As Deila floundered and eventually lost his job, Griffiths marched on relentlessly. He finished the season with 31 league goals and a clean sweep of player of the year awards.
Struggles under Brendan Rodgers
The arrival of Brendan Rodgers in the summer of 2016 changed things for Griffiths. Suddenly, he was back to square one despite having proven himself as the deadliest striker in the Scottish game. Rodgers had an indisputable way of playing and Griffiths would have to refine his game to fit in. He started the season brightly but quickly lost his spot to Celtic’s next big thing, Moussa Dembele. The form of the young Frenchman and the team made it tricky to get back in.
After making 45 starts in 15/16, he made less than half of that number in 16/17. His 18 goals were still an important contribution as Celtic swept their way to an unprecedented ‘Invincible treble’, but felt low-key compared to what preceded it. The adoration of the Celtic support towards Dembele meant there was little clamour for Griffiths to start either. The fact Dembele made it into BBC’s Team of the Decade despite having been in Scotland for little over two years says it all about his impact.
But even when Dembele left, Griffiths still found his path to the first team blocked as Odsonne Edouard took over. In August 2018, he scored his 100th goal for the club, but soon after his biggest obstacle yet arrived. His personal issues forced him to take the rest of the season off and many doubted whether he would ever return.
Griffiths sent an emphatic message to those doubters after his goal at Partick, saying his “time at Celtic is far from finished.” So, can he once again bounce back from adversity and reclaim his spot atop Scottish football? Does it even matter? After all he’s been through, perhaps it’s enough that he is simply back scoring goals in a green and white jersey.