There was a significance to James Forrest’s stupendous strike beyond the 25-yard tracer bullet of a biff essentially placing the Parkhead club within a Scottish Cup final victory of a treble treble for his Celtic team-mate Callum McGregor. He is convinced that Forrest’s decisive moment in the 3-0 victory over Aberdeen that has set up a decider against Hearts should leave not a soul doubting the winger is the outstanding performer in the Scottish game this season.
The goal took Forrest’s tally to 17 – the number he claimed last term – in a campaign wherein he has contributed 20 assists. The 27-year-old has become interim manager Neil Lennon’s go-to man courtesy of immaculate finishes in the Scottish Cup quarter final victory away to Hibernian and in the league success over Rangers, after ending 2018 with a five-goal burst in two matches to see Scotland claim a Euro 2020 play-off through the Nations League route.
“I think he’s just won player of the year with that wonder goal,” said McGregor, who has a strong case of his own for the award. “But listen, James has been outstanding again, and he has been playing at a real top level for the last two or three years, internationally too. Again today, another semi-final, he turns up with a big performance and a big goal for us to help us settle into the game.
“If I win it or Jamesy wins it we’ll be delighted, but if he wins it then he’s been outstanding and he thoroughly deserves it.”
Forrest’s growing propensity for producing moments that really matter in games that turn tournaments has made him one of Celtic’s most decorated performers of all-time. It will bring more accolades as well as burnishing a reputation that has been hard won after fitness and form issues in the early part of his career.
“The top players have got that calmness in those big moments when everything is frantic all round about them,” McGregor said. “They just concentrate on making the finish or the pass. He’s been outstanding and you can see that from the number of goals and assists he has got again.
“I’d be delighted for him if he was player of the year. This group are so humble, and whoever wins it we will be delighted. We work so hard. When it comes to pre-season we think we have to do it all gain and we manage to do it again somehow. We have a selfless group of players.”
In part, yesterday was a case of Celtic performers who have seemed destined to be support players taking centre stage. It might be no mere coincidence that Lennon again selected an XI that included no loanees. That meant a start for Jonny Hayes, whose career has seemed ill-fated since he moved from Aberdeen two seasons ago. It also resulted in Jozo Simunovic revelling in the trust that Lennon has placed in him and which seems at odds with Brendan Rodgers’ reluctance to rely on him if there were other options.
“How I played today I think is me,” said the Croat, who has had an up and down three years in Scotland. “Some things have changed since the new manager’s come in and I feel okay. That was the most important thing for me and I just need to keep going. The manager has a strong belief in me. I’m not saying anything about Brendan. But I just want to say that Neil believes in all of us, not just in me. Some of the other boys had an amazing performance today and we are going in the right way.”
Hayes is one of those. The 31-year-old was entitled to question whether that ever would be the case. “It’s been tough,” he said. “The broken leg [on Boxing Day of 2017] was a major setback, just as I was finding a bit of form and having a run in the team. Not only did I then miss the rest of the season but I started the following one a couple of weeks behind everyone else as well. Then it took me a while to get going but our medical people and sports scientists have been brilliant with me and everyone else at the club. They keep you sharp even when you’re not playing so that you can come straight back in and do a job. I was at the final against Motherwell last year with my little boy but I’m looking forward to playing in it this season.”