Celtic boss reckons winger has all the tools to evolve his game, writes Graeme Macpherson
James Forrest stands on the cusp of his own personal version of ten-in-a-row. Another Celtic season is up and running, a tenth consecutive year with Forrest set to be an integral part of it all. For a player who struggled with injury in the early part of his career, his subsequent consistency has been nothing short of remarkable.
Since breaking into the first team in 2010, the winger has made at least 25 appearances in every campaign since. Celtic have leaned on him more and more in recent years. In the season just completed, Forrest played 64 times for club and country. He did so with no drop-off in standards; his form not only helped Celtic clinch a third successive treble but also earned Forrest a raft of well-deserved Player of the Year awards.
He turned 28 last week but has retained the youthful, often quizzical, demeanour of one much younger. But there have been subtle changes, too. The once brittle body has grown stronger and more dynamic, and when he talks there is a conviction in his words where before there was often uncertainty.
In Neil Lennon, Forrest has perhaps his biggest fan. The manager who handed him his debut nine years ago and now wants to keep him at Celtic for the rest of his career, Lennon sees the potential in Forrest to metamorphosise from a winger into a central position. It is a role he has played sporadically and Lennon believes the time is right to experiment with making it a more permanent arrangement.
“As James goes on, he may need to evolve his game in a different position,” said the manager. “He may need to play inside as he gets older and that’s something we’ll look at.
“He’s two-footed, quick and he can get on the half-turn in those inside positions to break the lines, rather than just doing the long running all the time in the winger’s position.
“If people are getting too wise to him, can he develop his game for different positions? Of course he can, because he’s got the talent.
“I stuck him in the 10 position away to Hibs and he scored a wonder goal. He had a hell of a season last year in terms of games as well, and fatigue started to kick in towards the end. That’s something we have to be mindful of. But he’s in his peak and won’t be averse to being flexible about where we want him to play.”
Lennon describes Forrest as “humble” and not one to make a huge fuss about anything. Given that attitude, it is perhaps not a surprise that the player is open-minded to a position switch at this point in his career.
“When you’re an attacker you should be able to play either side or in behind the striker so I don’t mind where I play,” said Forrest.
“A few boys played different positions [in pre-season] but we did have a lot of wingers with us for the games so it gave everyone a chance to play their position.”
The prospect of Forrest perhaps shifting from his traditional beat will come as welcome news to the ears of Lewis Morgan. The former St Mirren forward has returned to Celtic from a loan spell at Sunderland and Lennon wants to give him a fair crack at nailing down a place.
“The door is open and there’s an opportunity for him to show what he can do,” said the manager. “To be fair to the kid, he’s done quite well so far. We’ve been impressed with him. When I was managing in the Championship and he was at St Mirren, he was the standout player. I liked him, but it’s important he kicks on now, physically and in his football.”
Next for Celtic is the second leg of their first round Champions League qualifying tie against Sarajevo. A 3-1 win in Bosnia ought to make for a comfortable night at Parkhead but Forrest still warned against complacency.
“We need to make sure we get the first goal as the last thing we want is for it to be a long night. We want a comfortable win and to be feeling good about ourselves after the game.”