FITTER, faster and better than ever. James Forrest provides the self-appraisal without even a hint of boastfulness and few who have watched him in the opening few months of the season would dispute his own assessment of his form.
Among those who will be most gratified by the rejuvenation of the Celtic winger is Scotland manager Gordon Strachan. Always a champion of Forrest’s ability and potential, Strachan maintained his faith in the player even during his more difficult periods over the past couple of years.
Despite his injury problems and general struggle to perform to his optimum levels on a consistent basis under Ronny Deila’s stewardship at the Scottish champions, Forrest never dropped off Strachan’s radar.
His involvement in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign saw him handed starting appearances in the high profile Hampden showdowns with Germany and Poland last season, an indication of how highly Strachan values him.
Now Forrest, one of the star turns in Celtic’s impressive start to the campaign under new boss Brendan Rodgers, wants to repay Strachan by playing an influential role in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign which continues with Saturday night’s meeting with Lithuania at the national stadium.
“He (Strachan) has really helped me a lot,” reflected Forrest as the Scotland squad stepped up their preparations at their Renfrewshire base.
“He played a big part in helping me during that time when things weren’t going so well for me at my club. He spoke to me a lot, had me involved in a lot of squads even when I wasn’t playing every week for Celtic.
“That was great for me, joining up with great players the whole time, training with lads who are playing down in England and working with top coaches as well. I really appreciated what he did for me and that support is not something I will forget. Now I just want to keep working hard for him and make sure I play well any time he gives me a chance.”
Forrest has certainly staked a powerful claim to feature in Strachan’s plans this weekend as Scotland seek to build on the promising start they made in the group when winning 5-1 in Malta last month.
Having started just 18 games and scored only two goals in the whole of last season for Celtic, Forrest has already netted five times in making 13 starts under Rodgers this campaign.
“Is this the best I’ve played?” he muses. “Definitely. This is also the fittest I have felt in my career. I’ve really had the benefit of a hard pre-season with Celtic. I think we all have. The games have come thick and fast as well so it’s really helped in terms of building the fitness.
“It couldn’t have gone better, to be honest. It has been brilliant since day one. At Celtic, we have really kicked on since the last international break, so it’s great to come away with Scotland again. You can hopefully take that form into the international scene.
“All the boys will tell you, if you are feeling confident then you come here with a spring in your step and it can only be good for the national team.
“The new manager has been a big influence on me. I’m sure a lot of the Celtic boys would say the same. He’s come in and given us a lot of confidence. We’ve been working hard and I think it has showed. Hopefully we can keep it going.
“I spoke to him when we came back for pre-season. He just told me that he’d see me play before and he told me what he expected. I think he spoke to all the boys and it was clear he wanted us to work hard. It turned out to be a really good pre-season and we kept that going into the campaign.
“The injuries I had over the last few years were frustrating but it’s just part and parcel of football. It happens to most players at some point in their careers and it’s more about how you deal with it.
“You need to get on with it. It was tough during those days. But I’ve always had faith in my ability. You have to keep believing during the good times and the bad times and stay as positive as possible.
“Confidence is a big part of it as well. It comes from the manager. He installs it and if you are winning games regularly the confidence builds. It makes a huge difference. I’ve been really enjoying my football and hopefully it will continue.
Such has been Forrest’s consistency in helping Celtic into the group stage of the Champions League and build a commanding early lead at the top of the Premiership table, he has been keeping the highly-regarded on-loan Manchester City winger Patrick Roberts out of Rodgers’ starting line-up.
“We’ve got a lot of good players in a lot of positions,” he added. “When you are at a big club like Celtic there is always going to be competition for places. I just need to keep working hard and hopefully I can stay in the team.
“I’ve played a lot of games and it’s been a great start to the season for me and the team. But this is just the start. There are a lot of important games coming up for Celtic and Scotland and I’m just excited to be part of them.”
Forrest will win his 15th cap if he plays against Lithuania and on current form might be a shrewd pick at the bookmakers for the first goal. He has yet to score for his country but is on a hot streak with Celtic, notably claiming most of them with eye-catching finishes with the outside of his right boot.
“I’ve scored a few like that over the years,” he said. “It’s not something I think about too much, to be honest. I’ve done it before and it’s just a different way of scoring. I will take any kind of goal - just as long as the ball ends up in the back of the net.”
Forrest now has a rival for the status as the fastest player in Strachan’s squad following the emergence of Oliver Burke. In the win in Malta which took Scotland to the top of Group F after the first round of matches, Forrest appeared as a substitute for the £13 million RB Leipzig teenager in the second half.
“I’ve been impressed by him in these last few squads,” added Forrest. “He’s a very modern player and a great attacking winger. We’ve got a few wide players in the squad now so there’s plenty of attacking players and a lot of competition. It can only be good for us.
“Oli’s looked good in training and he did really well in his first game. He’s really quick. It will be interesting to see who is quicker - him or me. We’ve not had a race yet so we’ll have to wait and see!
“It was great to get off to a good start in Malta. It wasn’t easy, especially after they pegged us back to 1-1. But the boys kept calm, fought back and we ended up getting a few goals. It was a really positive start and now we want to take that into Saturday and hopefully get another good result to take on to the game in Slovakia next Tuesday.
“We’ll do our homework on Lithuania this week but we’d expect them to come here and try to sit in and frustrate us. It will be up to us to be patient and break them down.”