Fraser Forster’s greatest struggle on Saturday as he looked on from afar while Celtic strove to break down Hearts was staying warm.
He was a study in lonely contemplation as he flapped his long arms around as the rain swirled around him. Forster had plenty of time in which to think.
So what’s a goalkeeper to do? Particularly one who is clearly having things whispered in his ear along the lines of: ‘Leave Scotland or else risk seeing your Brazil World Cup dream perish’.
Forster is in the second year of a four-year deal he signed in 2012 after his loan move from Newcastle United was turned into a permanent move.
Let’s face it, and despite the starting place Forster was handed against Chile after Joe Hart’s error-strewn first few months of the season, the noises from the English camp have never been encouraging when it comes to picking a goalkeeper who is earning his trade in Scotland. While the England manager has never said anything explicit on the subject, there have been enough reports from authoritative reporters in the English press to suggest that Roy Hodgson is of no mind to select Forster as his regular goalkeeper. If it is not plainly stated, then these reports normally at least imply that this is because Forster is operating in a league where the quality is so much in question.
This is something I have often found troubling. Surely there is little difference in a ball hurtling towards you, whether the player hitting the shot is Billy McKay or Luis Suarez? It still has to be saved. Indeed, Forster’s ability to react might be better tested by long periods where he is required to keep a watching brief and which are then punctuated by a quick burst of activity. And then, of course, there are his Champions League appearances – 12 in total this season, including qualifiers.
In March a writer in the England-based Times mentioned how Forster would be going from the high- octane experience of playing for Celtic against Juventus in the last 16 of the Champions League to an afternoon “twiddling his thumbs” against Ross County in Dingwall. If this is what the goalkeeper was doing then it might have had something to with Celtic conceding three goals in the 3-2 defeat they experienced in the Highlands. Still, it is about perception. And the perception south of the border is that Forster’s shot-saving instincts are not being honed by watching his team-mates try and unlock packed defences at the other end of the pitch.
To be fair, afternoons like Saturday do not aid Forster’s cause as he aims to book a seat on the flight to South America with the England squad. Indeed, they support the view of the doubters. Such occasions are also unlikely to convince Forster to remain at Celtic past January when it is clear – and has been clear for some time – that pressure is being exerted on him to leave Scottish football in order to preserve his World Cup dream. Of course, Forster has never been so tactless as to criticise the Scottish league from which he has earned a living. Also, he is aware that he has managed to graduate to the England squad while performing in this environment. It is no exaggeration to say his career was ignited by joining Celtic rather than in any way impeded.
It is unlikely he would have caught the eye of Barcelona while playing for a mid-ranking team in the English Premier League. At Celtic, he was able to show the Spanish side what he is about at close quarters in both this and last season. And, although his last appearance, in which he conceded six times, was a blot on his copybook, he escaped blame. Andres Iniesta has already been quoted as saying Forster would be a fine addition to the Barcelona squad. Benfica have also been credited with an interest in him.
But Hodgson might have a point. Saturday, for example, was no way to gear up for a World Cup in Brazil, and not just because of the weather conditions. Forster had barely a shot to save. And when, finally, Hearts did conjure up a late effort on target, the goalkeeper was not even required to intervene. Instead the handily placed Kris Commons was able to boot Dylan McGowan’s header off the line.
The half-empty stadium around him was another reminder that, after Celtic’s elimination from the Champions League, there is little he can now do to catch Hodgson’s eye. Even keeping a series of clean sheets from now until the end of the season might not be enough, particularly since Hart has seemingly re-claimed his No 1 jersey for Manchester City.
It is only a matter of days until the transfer window opens again. As with last year, the future of Celtic players will dominate coverage in Scotland. Twelve months ago, Celtic were at least looking forward to a Champions League knockout tie against Juventus. This was a trump card in Celtic’s favour as the likes of Forster and Gary Hooper pondered their future. The prospect of a pair of such glamorous games helped keep them at the club – as did, in Hooper’s case, Celtic’s unhappiness with the size of bids from Norwich City. Now there is little to convince the likes of Forster and Joe Ledley that their long-term future lies in Scotland.
Lennon dealt with the subject at a press conference on Friday as he engaged with the question of what to do in the case of Ledley and Georgios Samaras. Both players are out of contract in the summer and, if they don’t re-sign soon, then Celtic must investigate ways to profit from the pair next month. It is not beyond the realms to imagine they might receive as much as a combined total of up to £1 million for both players if they leave next month. Letting them go is hardly likely to impact Celtic’s chances of retaining the Scottish league title.
While watching Ledley go about his work with his customary diligence on Saturday, it is hard to believe he will be minded to sign a new contract solely on the prospect that he might – might – be playing Champions League football next season. In any case, he has been left on the bench on several big Champions League occasions because Lennon does not like playing two left-footed players in the middle of the park, and Scott Brown, as skipper, has been an automatic starter.
Lennon has much to consider over the course of the next few weeks. The issue of Forster’s future might well be one of them if, as expected, he knocks on his manager’s door over the coming weeks. It will certainly be surprising if Celtic are not shorn of some established first-team players by the time transfer window closes again. As much as we all want to be supportive of the Scottish game, the fact is that Celtic’s next “big game” is a lunch-time kick off against fourth-placed Inverness this Sunday. They are not due to play in-form Dundee United who, like Inverness, are ten points behind the leaders, until April.
It is a game where Forster might be expected to have to prove his worth against the Scottish game’s most in-form striker. But it is unlikely that Hodgson will be taking a seat at the Tulloch Caledonian stadium, not when Chelsea v Liverpool, and three other English Premier League fixtures, are scheduled for the same afternoon.