The numbers James Forrest is posting in his career have long since taken on eye-watering properties.
In landing the Scottish Football Writers’ Association’s Player of the Year award, the Celtic winger has done the double, having already claimed the PFA Scotland honour for his stellar campaign. This afternoon, he will take part in the celebrations for an eighth straight championship success and one in which he has been the integral component.
Following that he will gear up for his 11th domestic cup final. Victory over Hearts in the Scottish Cup decider on Saturday would give him a 16th winner’s medal in his career, and make him the eighth most-decorated player in the club’s illustrious history. No other Celtic player has won more medals than his total of 15 at the age of 27.
There is one figure that the attacker believes will forever remain beyond him, though. When he debuted to the senior stage as a 19-year-old during Neil Lennon’s first interim spell in charge nine years ago, he sported No.49. It is the number he has had on his back ever since. Even now, when the prized No.7 jersey – which is accorded mythical status having been worn by Jimmy Johnstone, Kenny Dalglish and Henrik Larsson – has no owner. There is almost a blush from Forrest about his earning the right to claim this shirt. He thinks “maybe” it is too late to change now. He thinks maybe, too, it is the preserve for the bought-in, rather than the brought through player.
“I think they always keep seven for big signings and such,” he said, although it has also been worn by underachievers such as Juninho, Freddie Ljungberg, Miku and Nadir Ciftci. “That would be unbelievable [to have it] but, naw, I’m happy with 49. Maybe I’ll ask the question. I don’t [really] think you can go in and ask for seven. If you do get offered it… I think they do keep it for signings and that. And I’m happy with that.
“I remember when Lennon was here the first time he said I could have swapped my number. But I just felt that coming through that was my number and I’d seen players older than me, like McGeady and Darren O’Dea, had always kept their number and I think it just stuck with me.”
Forrest has been with Celtic through the good and bad times to arrive at the current extraordinary period. He was once a player who attracted opprobrium from his own support. Now, he elicits their appreciation. He has come a long way since the days when his name being read over the Tannoy at Celtic Park provoked only grumbles.
“I think at a big club players go through different stages in their career,” he said. “Obviously, teams do as well. We weren’t as successful then and you see how many players I’ve played with till now, it’s been so many. To be still here after the years I must be doing something right, so I just want to keep working hard and stay for as long as I can. It’s good to hear cheers when you’re playing in front of your fans but you know football changes so quickly. Everyone knows that. There are highs and lows and you just try to stay the same because it can change so quick.”
The relentless drive to claim silverware from this current crop of players instilled by Brendan Rodgers has survived his departure. Yet, it is interesting to hear Forrest obliquely name-check him in reacting to the fact that he has only Billy McNeill, Bobby Lennox, both on 23 medals, Jimmy Johnstone on 19, and Bobby Murdoch, Alec McNair, Jimmy McMenemy and Scott Brown, with 18, ahead of him on Celtic’s all-time honours list.
“That is really good to hear things like that. As the old manager used to say, when you are winning and being successful you keep wanting more,” he said. “Afterwards you can definitely think about it more. You’d rather be winning than not winning. I think it does take a toll on everybody but it is really enjoyable to be part of. The couple of seasons that everyone has had has given us a real feelgood factor about the place. If you see us in training the standard is really high but that is because if you are not producing the levels other players will come in and take your place. Everyone knows that.”
Old stagers Brown and Mikael Lustig are Celtic’s Mr Motivators who, having been through a number of different Parkhead eras can, and do, communicate in the most vocal fashion to squad members who have known nothing but success that it shouldn’t be considered a given. Forrest’s length of experience means he could also perform that role. His diffident personality means he doesn’t.
“I think players maybe respect players for different things,” the winger said. “Everyone is different. You can’t have 11 Scott Browns in the team. That is why he stands out so much and then Lustig is probably the next one. They are big characters in the dressing room, I still learn off them and the young boys coming in see the standards they set.”
In the quest for a perfect nine Forrest will be ranged against a man to whom he feels a genuine sense of gratitude. Craig Levein’s three-year Scotland tenure may be remembered only grimly. Forrest has a different take as a result of the fact it was the Hearts manager who introduced him to the international fold. It was eight years ago this month – in the Nations Cup against the Republic of Ireland – that the winger was handed his first senior cap, and Levein showed a faith in him then he has not forgotten.
“He was really good for me,” Forrest said. “When I came in there weren’t that many young boys in at the time and he made me feel welcome coming into the squad. I was obviously buzzing making my debut for Scotland when I was 19. He was really good even if it didn’t work out and he’s now doing really well at Hearts and that’s good to see. The players did get on with him and there were big players that played in England and the like at that time and he did get on with everyone. It was just results didn’t work out in the end.”
The opposite is true for Forrest.