That Ronny Deila expresses neither surprise nor disappointment at James Forrest’s decision to reject a new four-year contract from Celtic is perhaps the most telling indication of the present status of a player once touted as the most exciting prospect in Scottish football.
Forrest, of course, would hardly be the first to fall some way short of matching the hype and expectation which surrounded his initial appearance on the scene. But, as he approaches his 25th birthday this summer, the winger’s career has reached a crossroads which offers no obvious direction towards fulfilling the high hopes so many have previously invested in him.
When he carries the ball, he is like Messi. But it has to be more effective and more intense defensively and offensivelyRonny Deila
Former Celtic boss Neil Lennon constantly raved about Forrest’s talent, while Scotland manager Gordon Strachan is also among the biggest admirers of a player with pace to burn and often sublime ball control. Even Deila, while appearing far from distressed at the prospect of losing Forrest’s services, went as far as to compare some aspects of the player’s game to that of Lionel Messi.
Like many who operate in his position, however, Forrest too often lacks a decisive or incisive end product on the pitch. That is something Deila believes could yet be addressed but it now seems unlikely to happen at Celtic where Forrest’s current contract expires at the end of December.
“James can still be a fantastic footballer,” said Deila. “Everybody sees what he has got, but he has to do it more often in games. There has to be more intensity in everything he does. When he carries the ball, he is like Messi. You just feel it is so easy. Everything is good, his balance, everything, but it has to be more effective and it has to be more intense defensively and offensively. Then he will reach his full potential.
“It doesn’t disappoint me that he has turned down the contract. It’s part of football, we know that. There is nothing final yet. As it is right now, it’s a ‘No’ from James and his representatives. We have to take that on and see what the future brings.
“You never know if the offer stays on the table. But now the communication is not like it was before. They said ‘no’ to the offer and we felt like we made a very good offer.
“Of course, a four-year deal is a statement of faith in the player. But I’m not surprised by the decision to turn it down. I never get surprised any more in football. We have these interesting situations all the time. There are a lot of things the player has to talk about. They have agents and there are other opportunities. It’s a tough thing. But, as I said, in my opinion we’ve given him a good offer and now we have to go on.”
Asked if he believed Forrest had been badly advised during the contract talks, Deila remained non-committal.
“I haven’t been to any of the negotiations so I can’t say anything about what has happened there,” he replied. “That is something that has been with [chief executive] Peter Lawwell. I talk with the player about football things, Peter talks with the player about money things and I am glad for that.”
Forrest, plagued by injuries in previous years, has been fully fit this season. But just 18 of his 32 appearances for the first team have been from the start, the only one since the turn of the year coming in the Scottish Cup win over Lowland League side East Kilbride last month.
Deila insists Forrest’s rejection of a new contract will not influence him when he considers the 13-times capped Scotland player for selection for the rest of the campaign.
“He is still here, he is a good football player,” added Deila. “So I will continue picking the team that I think is the best. We will see what happens between now and when his contract runs out in December. Either he can sign, leave in the summer or after Christmas. So that’s a question we have to take when things are coming up. Nobody I know has enquired about him.
“James is a player who has been here for many years and is now really getting a run of training sessions. Now he is never thinking about injuries. He just trains and trains. He hasn’t played from the start much. He just needs to get his performances even better.
“He has developed a lot since I came here. On the pitch he has still a lot to go, but now I see him on the training pitch all the time. I didn’t see him when I first came here. The first year he was out and in all the time, half-exercises, getting tired, whatever. Now he is very consistent. He gets up to the speed and the tempo in everything he does and develops his skills he needs to develop.
“Now he is in a very good place physically, but he hasn’t played so much because of the hard competition for places. So he has to use his minutes on the pitch when they come. Now that he is going he wants to play every match and train every day. It is a big, big step for him. I think if he stays he will be even better because he has something special.”
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