WHEN James Forrest helped Celtic’s under-19 side win their version of the domestic double three years ago, he had high hopes he and his team-mates could graduate together into the senior ranks at the club.
But tomorrow at Hampden, the 21-year-old winger will be the only member of his class of 2010 involved as Celtic attempt to add the William Hill Scottish Cup to their SPL title triumph.
“Footbal is a brutal game,” reflected Forrest as he recalled his first appearance at the National Stadium, the 2-0 Scottish Youth Cup final win over Rangers in front of a crowd of over 7,500.
“We had a good squad at under-19 level that year and we were pretty close. But a lot of those boys aren’t playing now and that’s quite sad.
“Some of them are at college or working in other jobs. It’s been hard for them. That’s what happens, every year you are surprised at some of the players who are released and can’t find a club.”
Some of the Celtic youth side who played that night have remained in the game, including Dundee defender Declan Gallagher and his midfield namesake Grant, who is with Stranraer.
Sean Fitzharris has dropped down to the fourth tier of Scottish football with Clyde, Callum Bagshaw is with Highland League side Formartine United, former Hibs’ loanee Richie Towell is back home in Ireland with Dundalk and defender Jordan Lowdon has made his way to Australia where he plays for the exotically-named but little known Peninsula Power in Brisbane.
So Forrest, who is just two games short of a century of first-team appearances for Celtic, will never take his first-team status for granted.
“It starts when you train with the under-14s for the first time and look at the players in the first team,” he says. “You want to get there yourself and it is satisfying for me that I’ve been able to be involved with the first team for a while now. I’m just glad I’m still at Celtic and I want to stay for as long as I can.
“The week of that youth cup final in 2010, I also made my debut for the first team so it was a great time for me. I remember it well. It was my first appearance at Hampden and it was a big deal for us because we hadn’t played in front of a crowd like that before.”
Forrest is now accustomed to the big occasion. He has performed for Celtic in the Champions League and goes in search of his fourth winners’ medal with the club tomorrow.
He appeared as a late substitute when Celtic last lifted the Scottish Cup, beating Motherwell in the final two years ago, but is now one of the first names on manager Neil Lennon’s teamsheet. “I’ve not played as much as I would like this season because of injuries,” he admitted. “So far, the Scottish Cup semi-final win over Dundee United, when I set up the winner for Anthony Stokes in extra-time, has been the highlight for me. I’ve been feeling good for the last couple of weeks and my injury is better now. I didn’t play last weekend because there was no point in taking any risks that might have resulted in me missing the final.”
Like everyone else, Forrest has pinpointed Hibs striker Leigh Griffiths as the biggest danger to Celtic’s hopes of yet more silverware tomorrow. “I played with Leigh for Scotland under-21s and the goals he scores, even in training, are ridiculous,” said Forrest. “He can score from anywhere. He’s shown how good he is this season and deserved all the Player of the Year awards he got. He will be a big threat to us on Sunday.
“But we are looking forward to it. It’s a big pitch at Hampden and hopefully that will suit us. People talk about our record there not being the best recently, but all of us are happy to play at Hampden. There are no excuses.”