‘You have to raise your game or be left behind’ - James Forrest spurred on by fear of Celtic axe

Celtic winger James Forrest was criticised for his display in the Old firm defeat
Celtic winger James Forrest was criticised for his display in the Old firm defeat
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He was the outstanding performer as Celtic completed a third straight domestic treble last season, scooped multiple Player of the Year awards as a result and has since helped the Parkhead club reach the knockout rounds of Europa League and win the Betfred Cup.

But are supporters happy with James Forrest? Far from it.

The 28-year-old, who has scored no fewer than 14 times in the 35 games he has played at club level in the 2019-20 campaign, has found his recent successes and rich vein of form haven’t spared him some scathing criticism of late.

The winger was singled out for blame by many Celtic fans after the 2-1 defeat by Rangers at Parkhead at the end of last month. He certainly had a disappointing afternoon in the Ladbrokes Premiership match before being replaced by Olivier Ntcham midway through the second half.

Still, it seems harsh to turn on him after only one subdued display given how impressively he had performed in the months leading up to it. What about the goals against AIK, Cluj and Lazio? What about the ten consecutive trophies?

However, Forrest, who is now the second longest-serving player at Celtic after Scott Brown, understands that at the Glasgow club he is only ever 90 minutes away from losing the backing of the crowd and his first-team place.

He didn’t let the plaudits he was showered with go to his head and he won’t allow the flak that has flown in his direction get him down either. He knows he always has to play at his best regardless.

“It has always been like that since I have come through,” he said at the treble treble winners’ winter training camp in Dubai. “At Celtic when you are a forward player you are judged on every game. When you have a good game, you can never think ‘that’s me, I’m a good player now’. I have learned that as I have got older.

“You need to keep trying to show it in every game and in training as well. Everyone knows that every good player has bad games when he doesn’t play well. I think this has been the best season that I have had. But I need to keep adding to that right through the season.

“I think that people know what I can do, the coaches and the players as well. I know myself what I can do as well. I don’t think any player can be at their best in every single game throughout a whole season.”

Celtic have been linked with a raft of players in the past few weeks and there are sure to be some new arrivals during the January transfer window. The fear of being ousted from the side by one of them, despite everything he has achieved, spurs Forrest on. Now more than ever in fact.

“You always think like that,” he said. “Maybe not before, but definitely in the last couple of years. Football can change so quickly. I have seen players who have been playing week in, week out, drop out. Different things can happen. A couple of bad games for the player, for the team. The old manager was big on complacency, about not thinking you are always going to play. He was always good with taking boys out for a few games to get their heads right, to let them know that they need to keep performing.

“Even though I have been here for so long, every summer and January you always have to push yourself every day because there are young boys coming through and there are links with us signing players as well. You always have to raise your standards otherwise you will get left behind, you won’t play or be involved.

“You see players coming in, you see young boys doing well as well. If I just think, ‘I’m going to play’, maybe I won’t get the best out of myself. It is good for competition when we sign players and when young boys come through. You do get a push from that. You are trying that bit harder to prove yourself.”

Forrest is one of no fewer than four Celtic players – the others are Kristoffer Ajer, Scott Brown, pictured below, and Callum McGregor – who are in the top ten of a list of footballers who have played the most competitive minutes in the first half of the season.

He suspects that fatigue possibly crept into their play leading up to the winter shutdown due to their busy schedule and could have contributed to their flat showing against Rangers. He believes the Dubai trip has come at the right time and anticipates them getting back to their best when play resumes on Saturday week.

“We had a really good pre-season and we have done really well this season,” he said. “But I think in the last couple of weeks in December the team was looking like it needed this break. We will have a good week training out here and then another week back home before we start playing again.

“So I think the break will be good for the squad both physically and mentally.”

Rangers are now only two points behind Celtic in the Premiership and have a game in hand against St Johnstone at home to play. But Forrest remains upbeat about the defending champions’ prospects despite the loss to their city rivals. He still has faith in his own abilities and that of his team regardless of the negative reaction to their last result.

“It’s been right up there personally,” he said. “With my goals and assists I feel good and as a team we’re also playing really well, at home and in Europe too. I feel like we’ve produced some really good 
performances.

“But it’s only half a season so I’d never say too much just now. It’s been going really well, but we need to kick on when we get back into it.”