Scotland’s King James in waiting

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Barry Anderson meets Scots starlet aiming to hone his development on international stage

IT IS rare nowadays for young players to find themselves fast-tracked into senior international football. Celtic’s James Forrest is an exception. After only three under-21 appearances, he was promoted to Craig Levein’s Scotland squad earlier this year and hasn’t looked back since.

Despite being just 20 years old, he has already amassed almost as many full caps as he achieved with the under-21s. Forrest played against the Republic of Ireland and Denmark earlier this year, but is still without a competitive international outing. He hopes that will change over the coming week when Scotland conclude their European Championship qualifying campaign with visits to Liechtenstein and Spain.

Forrest isn’t a daft kid blinded by the stars in his eyes, however. He betrays commendable maturity in conversation at Scotland’s team hotel in leafy Renfrewshire and acknowledges the need for patience. As the second youngest player in Levein’s squad for this international double-header – Blackburn Rovers’ Grant Hanley is four months his junior – he has no right to demand game time.

Experience counts for everything at this level and Forrest is merely happy to hone his development among the Scotland squad. With his searing pace and dribbling skills, he can also offer something different should Levein require it. If called upon, either in the Rheinpark in Vaduz or Alicante’s Rico Perez Stadium, he is confident of reproducing the form which has seen him start seven times and score four goals at Celtic this season.

“I only played three times for the under-21s, I was called up early at that level and now at senior level,” said Forrest. “Obviously people have seen what I can do and maybe thought they’d give me a bit of experience in and around players who are playing in England. It’s only going to benefit me.

“The experienced boys have been together and played in this campaign for the past two years or so. It would be a bit unfair to change it just now while we still have a chance of qualifying. I’m not going to start moaning if I don’t get on.

“It’s great experience for me being here. Last time we went away with Scotland I didn’t get on in either of the games, but it was great just being there and in amongst the boys. If I did get asked to play, I’ve got confidence in my own ability to do a job.”

That confidence, particularly with the ball at his feet, is what sets Forrest apart. His domestic performances with Celtic have at times been mesmerising, although he cut a rather subdued figure for much of Sunday’s loss at Tynecastle. That defeat proved hard to stomach ahead of two vital international assignments, but the player’s morale has lifted since joining the Scotland squad.

He is unlikely to start against Liechtenstein or Spain, but may prove a useful weapon for the latter stages of the games should Scotland require a goal. Creating chances is, after all, what Forrest does best from the wide area, followed closely by finishing them.

“I think I’ve done well with Celtic over the past couple of months,” he continued. “I’ve shown what I can do, but there are quality players here who play in the Premier League every week and it’s just up to the manager who he chooses. He can go with a few different formations with the players in the squad – he has a lot to choose from.

“I’m probably a different type of player to what he’s got in the squad. If he wants to change it he knows I’m there. You could probably make a starting 11 of midfielders from the players here. At Celtic it’s the same, there are eight or nine midfielders who could start every week.”

Scotland’s embarrassment of midfield riches includes players like Charlie Adam, Barry Bannan, Don Cowie, Graham Dorrans, Darren Fletcher, James Morrison, Barry Robson, Robert Snodgrass and Danny Swanson. Contrast that with a dearth of attacking options – the forwards in the squad are David Goodwillie, Craig Mackail-Smith, Kenny Miller and Steven Naismith – and it becomes clear where Levein’s main concerns lie. Scoring goals is a perennial problem which has afflicted Scotland managers since the days when Levein was still solving mathematics equations in high school. It is compounded by the fact Miller, something of a talisman to the Tartan Army, is a serious doubt for the Liechtenstein match.

A groin injury forced his substitution after only ten minutes of Cardiff City’s English Championship match against Hull on Saturday. He is expected to be fit to face Spain.

His absence on Saturday would further complicate the task against a so-called minnow nation which almost produced a major shock last time they met Scotland. Thirteen months ago, the part-timers of Liechtenstein took the lead at Hampden Park before Miller equalised. It took a Stephen McManus goal in the seventh minute of stoppage time to spare Scotland’s blushes and scrape a 2-1 win.

“I remember watching it on TV,” recalled Forrest. “It doesn’t always go the way you expect in these games. They are part-time, but we needed a winner in injury-time. Hopefully that’s not the case on Saturday and we can get a few goals. A lot of teams are sitting back now with a lot of players behind the ball so it’s harder to break them down. I think we can get a few goals in Liechtenstein, though.

“Obviously everybody is looking forward to the Spain game but Liechtenstein is first and we need to make sure we get three points there. We just need to look to Saturday, hopefully win that, then take it into the last group game on Tuesday.”