Tuesday 15 August 2017, 09:09

Scots' free-kick hero eyes another miracle

  • Leigh Griffiths scored two superb free-kicks in three minutes against England

  • The Scotland striker explains his technique and mindset

  • Struggling Scots face "must-win" double-header against Lithuania and Malta

Leigh Griffiths turns 27 this week. Though his preference is always to look forward – to the next challenge, the next goal – this looming milestone offered the Scotland and Celtic striker a rare opportunity to reflect.

It’s now over a decade, after all, since he broke into the professional game as a raw, skinny but evidently talented 16-year-old. “If you’d told me then where I’d be now,” he told FIFA.com, “I would have been absolutely delighted.”

Just a few weeks before that 2006 debut for Livingston, Griffiths had watched, awe-struck, as a man with a magical left-foot secured a dramatic UEFA Champions League win for Celtic in the most spectacular fashion. Shunsuke Nakamura’s inch-perfect free-kick earned a 1-0 victory over English giants Manchester United, and the strike made an enduring impression on the teenager watching on television.

“Nakamura’s free-kicks were brilliant and I remember watching them all the time on the highlights programmes,” Griffiths recalled. “But the one against Man United in the Champions League always stands out for me. I think that was his best. I’ve spoken to Broony (Celtic and Scotland captain Scott Brown) about him as they played together here and he says that, with the ball at his feet and especially with free-kicks, Nakamura was just a magician."

Griffiths has never been one for idols though. While a Nakamura admirer, he was a Hibernian fan and, in any case, has always possessed an independent, self-reliant streak. “I’ve never tried to copy anyone else’s technique,” he explained. “I always wanted to do my own thing.

“With free-kicks, I actually never even practised them much as a kid. But what I did love, and still love, is striking the ball. Ask any of the boys in the Celtic dressing room and they’ll tell you that no-one loves hitting shots, scoring goals, more than me. Whether it’s in training or in games, I never get bored of it.”

The unadulterated nature of Griffith’s enjoyment is matched by the purity of his talent. Few modern-day footballers strike the ball as sweetly, or fiercely, a fact underlined by the Scotland striker's remarkable brace of free-kicks against England in the sides' June FIFA World Cup™ qualifier.

Opening his Scotland account with a wonder goal against the ‘auld enemy’ would in itself have been the stuff of dreams. To replicate the feat three minutes later left even the most seasoned observers open-mouthed. As the Scots’ manager, Gordon Strachan - coincidentally, the man in charge of Celtic when Nakamura broke English hearts - said afterwards: “I have just seen Scotland’s best-ever free kick and Scotland’s second best-ever free kick.”

Even Joe Hart, who had gone 646 minutes without conceding for England before Griffiths struck, made a beeline afterwards to shake the scorer’s hand. “I’ve watched the free-kicks again and we would have needed four or five Crouchys (Peter Crouchs) in that wall to make a difference,” Hart said later. “I wanted to congratulate him. I also wanted to talk about the free-kicks because I was interested in his thought process in those situations.”

It is a conversation that Griffiths remembers well. “He spoke to me to say well done, and said that he’d expected me to go for a squiggler (the knuckleball technique favoured by Cristiano Ronaldo among others) on the first free-kick,” he recalled. “I’d taken one like that against England at Wembley, so the fact I curled the first free-kick caught him off guard. The second he was ready for but he said I’d placed it perfectly; that he’d stretched as much as he could and just couldn’t get anywhere near it.”

Griffiths on free-kick 1 “I’d be lying if I said I was totally calm. Knowing it’s against England, with the way the game was – us being 1-0 down – you realise how much it means. My main focus was: just get it on target. Make sure you clear the wall and at least make the keeper work. I knew we’d have boys following in if Hart made the save. But fortunately I hit it so well that he had no chance.”

Griffiths on free-kick 2 “I was always going to go for the other corner with that one. I remember saying to Stuart [Armstrong, a team-mate also standing over the ball] ‘If I get this over the wall, it’s going in.’ I knew the pace I was going to get on the ball and that Hart wouldn’t get there. And as soon as it left my boot, if you look at the replay from the other end, I’m off celebrating.”

Harry Kane’s stoppage-time equaliser curtailed those celebrations, of course, and denied Griffiths a happy ending to his free-kick fairy tale. “Mixed emotions doesn’t even cover it,” he recalled, shaking his head. “But I was still happy, just to have got those first goals, because people had been talking about me not scoring. I felt like I’d proved a point.”

Points, though, are just what Strachan’s side are short of in this qualifying campaign, with a disappointing haul of eight leaving them adrift of England (14), Slovakia (12) and Slovenia (11) in Group F. But while all signs point to the Scots sitting out a fifth successive World Cup, Griffiths - high on confidence after an unbeaten, treble-winning season with Celtic and playing his "best-ever football” - remains defiant.

“We’ll never give up,” he vowed. “As long as it’s mathematically possible, we’ll keep going. But the next two games (away to Lithuania and home to Malta) are definitely must-win. Anything less than six points from them and we can forget it. But if we win those and take it on to October, we can still turn things around.”

It will, in truth, take something extraordinary to salvage Scotland's campaign. But in Griffiths, they at least have a player well capable of producing just that.