JAMES Forrest yesterday insisted he was not cast as co-conspirator in Neil Lennon’s bid to wrong-foot Scottish Cup semi-final opponents Dundee United by claiming the winger would not be fit for last Sunday’s clash.
It was a classic case of managerial subterfuge and reporters dutifully wrote that both Forrest and Kris Commons – who Lennon said had an ankle knock – were unlikely to appear at Hampden. In the event both players not only started the match, but played significant parts in the 4-3 win.
Lennon admitted afterwards that he had “lied” about their condition in the pre-match press conference. He explained that he wanted to keep their appearance under wraps and hand United a surprise.
“I didn’t even know he had said that to be honest,” answered Forrest, when asked about this cloak and dagger operation – or what had seemed to be a cloak and dagger operation. “I just wanted to keep playing and I’m just gutted there’s only five or six games left.”
As far as Forrest was concerned it was all very simple. He was fit, and he was desperate to play. He didn’t get involved in any mind-games. Indeed, there is little that is complicated about the 22-year-old winger other than the difficult-to-treat nerve problem that has affected his back and legs.
He has even been forced into trying such extreme measures as changing his make of car. Like other footballers, including Ryan Giggs, he has been advised to change cars in case the position of the seat is affecting him. Giggs was told to do this after suffering a spate of hamstring injuries.
“I have tried everything,” said Forrest. “I got an injection in my back, so that helped as well. Yes, I have changed my car and tried different stuff in the gym as well.”
It has been a frustrating season for Forrest. He only played in two of Celtic’s six Champions League group games and when he featured against Juventus in the first leg of Celtic’s last 16 clash, it was only his second start of the year. He is also yet to appear for Scotland under new manager Gordon Strachan.
“I have only been away once this season with Scotland and I’ve been injured for the rest of the games,” he said. “I want to play for Scotland and hopefully I can be fit for selection for the Croatia game [in June].
“I have had my rest and I am raring to go now,” he added. “I’ve had nerve problems and getting pains from my back going down my legs. It has been niggling away. It’s nothing major but it has stopped me from playing. It has been on and off since October.”
It has taken a mental toll on the winger although he has had equally injury-jinxed team-mates like Scott Brown for company in the gym while doing rehabilitation work. “I am never on my own,” he smiled.
Few players would be capable of making the kind of impact Forrest managed on Sunday in their first game back. He had enough stamina to still be tormenting the United defence in extra-time, when he sent over the cross for Anthony Stokes to head in the match winner.
“I just came back in and felt fine straight away,” he shrugged. “As long as I don’t feel anything [in the muscles] I can play anytime. I feel fit enough.”
He has timed his return well since there is the chance he might be taking part in a title party on Sunday afternoon, when Celtic entertain Inverness Caledonian Thistle. The excuse to celebrate might even come earlier if Motherwell drop points against Dundee United tomorrow night.
Although he claims it will “not bother” him and his team-mates when the title is finally secured, it is possible to deduce from his reaction that he would prefer it to happen at Celtic Park on Sunday, rather than on Tayside tomorrow, when Celtic fans and players won’t be present.
“If we go into the game on Sunday knowing that if we win, we win the league, then that will be good for us,” said Forrest. “Motherwell have a hard game against Dundee United. Either way it happens, we are not bothered. We just want to win the league as quickly as we can.”
Celtic are anticipating a potential league and cup double in what is the club’s 125th anniversary season. Their last major anniversary was the club’s centenary year of 1988, when they claimed a double under Billy McNeill.
“The chance to win the league and do the double is still a big deal for us,” said Forrest.
“Celtic have not done it for six years now, so that would be a big achievement if we can win it this year.”