Andrew Smith: As Tierney heads for big-money exit, Forrest proves priceless

Celtic appeared to be saying their goodbyes to Kieran Tierney last night. Just as they were doing so, the Scottish champions proved once again indebted to a player who never seems to want to offer up his farewells to the club.
James Forrest celebrates after levelling for Celtic in the 37th minute.James Forrest celebrates after levelling for Celtic in the 37th minute.
James Forrest celebrates after levelling for Celtic in the 37th minute.

The vital away goal that James Forrest produced out of nothing put a sheen on a performance that wasn’t much of anything in Romania last night. Neil Lennon’s men were too open, too disjointed and too vulnerable at set-pieces against an enterprising Cluj. Yet Forrest’s intervention allowed them to come away with a scoreline that offers every encouragement they can get seal progress to a Champions League play-off against Slavia Prague in the return leg of the third-round qualifier.

It was only on the day before last night’s Transylvania test that the Celtic winger reiterated his desire to spend his entire footballing lifetime with what genuinely seems the only team he ever wants to play for –for all that this phrase has been utterly corrupted by being too often uttered disingenuously. Lennon has maintained he is keen to see Forrest’s terms improved and, in response, the 28-year-old has said he would jump at the opportunity to extend his contract…despite only agreeing a four-year deal 11 months ago.

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The contrast with Tierney, whose head was understandably turned by Arsenal’s pursuit that will net him a £75,000-a-week salary and the opportunity to operate in the upper echelons of the globe’s most glittering league, could hardly be more marked.

Tierney, subject to a medical, will join the London club after they lodged a third bid ahead of the English transfer window closing today. The 22-year-old left-back will depart his boyhood club in a Scottish record £25m deal.

Forrest would not attract such an offer. Yet there is no question that his contributions on the European stage have been worth far in excess of any fee that might by banked for Tierney.

Celtic were teetering when Forrest stepped up. The loss of a 28th-minute opener – the product of the Scottish champions being sliced apart as Boli Bolingoli betrayed a lack of assurance that haunted him all evening – threatened to see Lennon’s side suffer further punishment against a team whose support then sensed they could capitalise on weaknesses apparent in their visitors.

A pattern could then have been set. It wasn’t, because nine minutes later Forrest drifted across the right-hand edge of the box and, shifting the ball from right to left, with draughtsman’s precision steered a low drive in off the far post. Not just the sort of finish that Forrest has proven increasingly adept at crafting, but the sort of crucial moment the winger has often reserved for Champions League qualifiers, on which rest a £25m bounty.

The equaliser in Cluj was his eighth in the competition for Celtic . All but one of the previous seven have come at the qualifying stage. As an auxiliary striker, he snatched the winner away to Rosenborg in Brendan Rodgers’ first season. Six years ago, in the third minute of injury time, he came up with a third goal for Celtic to overhaul a two-goal deficit against Shakhter Karagandy that opened up the riches of the group stages for a second successive season.

A goal that helped Celtic on their way to a 5-0 home drubbing of Astana was also a tie-turner, and the same could be said of his home-and-away goals against Alashkert, and, going back further, Cliftonville. Celtic’s last win in the Champions League group stages came with a 2-1 victory at home to Ajax in October 2013. Yup, he scored that night too.

Forrest has become the man for all seasons for Celtic. Or, rather, the man for every season, with no amount of games or trophy wins in the club colours enough for a player who made his senior debut back in 2010. He blanched when asked about a testimonial not so long ago, but then conceded that the prospect filled him with pride. Tierney’s exit after just four seasons in Celtic’s first team only serves to illustrate the preciousness of Forrest’s continued commitment.