How Celtic star James Forrest became so much more than a speedy winger

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It was a huge week for James Forrest as he took his devastating form onto the international scene. Joel Sked looks at how he is now a whole lot more than a quick winger.

• READ MORE: James Forrest ‘would flourish in English Premier League but is happier at Celtic’

James Forrest has been in fine form for Celtic. Picture: SNS/Craig Williamson

James Forrest has been in fine form for Celtic. Picture: SNS/Craig Williamson

Martin Canning is woken in a state of disorientation. He fumbles around trying to navigate his phone while turning on the light.

It’s 2am on Saturday morning. The caller ID reads ‘Ziggy Gordon’.

On answering all that can be heard is a mixture of heavy breathing and whimpering. After 30 or so seconds two words, stricken with fear, emerge: “James. Forrest.”

It’s the fourth time the Hamilton Academical manager has received such a phone call from his sleep deprived defender. The same trembling voice. The same two words.

Forrest hit five goals over two games to fire Scotland into the Euro 2020 play-off. Picture: SNS/Craig Williamson

Forrest hit five goals over two games to fire Scotland into the Euro 2020 play-off. Picture: SNS/Craig Williamson

The above may or may not have actually happened, but such is the form Forrest is in you could forgive opposing defenders for reaching such levels of intense panic.

On Saturday afternoon Scotland’s most in-form player will take to the field at the Hope CBD Stadium as Celtic look to extend their lead at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership table in Saturday’s early fixture against an Accies side who have shipped 18 goals in six games.

Canning and his charges will be well aware of Forrest’s exploits during the international break with Scotland, netting five goals in wins over Albania and Israel. The day after the night before, as Scotland secured their play-off place for Euro 2020, the Accies ground staff could have been forgiven for contemplating drowning the wide areas of the artificial surface with black pellets.

Except that was the Forrest of then. Not the Forrest of now.

When Brendan Rodgers arrived it appeared Forrest would leave the club he joined when he turned 13. The former Liverpool boss, however, held a similar view as ex-Celtic manager Neil Lennon, a massive fan since the player’s academy days.

This was a speedster with incredible potential. He simply needed direction, more refined coaching. In the last two and half or so years it is been a case of steady but constant development.

The first season under Rodgers saw him share responsibility with Patrick Roberts on the right-hand side before becoming a key starter last campaign, seeing off the challenge of the English loanee.

Not only that but it was the first sign of a significant jump in quality and consistency of performance. As Rodgers altered his system to give Kieran Tierney more freedom on the left it required balance. Balance which Forrest brought as he played as a wing-back/winger hybrid. And did it incredibly well.

The term football intelligence is usually reserved for a canny striker, a midfield operator or trustworthy centre-back, not a winger. Forrest disproved that with the way he worked defensively, protecting the right-sided centre-back, namely Mikael Lustig in his own hybrid role, while continuing to provide attacking width and a goal threat. His return of 17 goals was by far his best - the first time he had hit double figures for.

He is already on course to better that, averaging a goal every 206 minutes for his club, compared to last season’s 242 minutes.

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Celtic fans are now well aware of his qualities. As for supporters of the Scotland national team, there has always been a dose of scepticism. In his 24 caps prior to this week’s action he had done little of note. Even the most ardent Scotland follower would find it difficult to pick a list of his three best moments.

He has been flaky in a Scotland jersey, as he was for Celtic over a number of years. And then there is his running style. In baseball, scouts would - and likely still do - ignore pitchers with an unusual throwing style or body movement. That can translate to football where players can look awkward.

The 27-year-old, when he runs, looks like he’s an animal genetically modified to cope with deep, dark and dank rainforest. Head down, burrowing forward, his hands swishing to his side, cutting away branches.

It is certainly unique but it is definitely not detrimental to his performances. This week was his coming of age as a Scotland player and led to a healthy dose of revisionism.

What a delighted Tartan Army witnessed was a player continuing to add strings to his bow. His first act as a football player was a raw, inconsistent, speedy winger who largely ran in straight lines. The second act arrived with Rodgers. He became more nuanced, intelligent and calm. In the final third he seemed to develop a breath, a pause before playing an accurate cross or pass.

Now he’s into his third act: Forrest the decisive forward.

Coming into the international break he had scored seven in seven with another five assists on top. Therefore, in hindsight, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see Forrest among the goals for Scotland.

His five goal haul simply showcased his continued development to a wider snapshot of Scottish football fans who perhaps don’t see what he is doing on a weekly basis.

No longer does Forrest play on the right, he plays from it. Steven Fletcher was a fine foil for him in attack, someone the Celtic wide man can run in behind. And it’s these runs which are becoming more dangerous, more incisive as he varies his positioning in attack. He is taking up more central areas, drifting into positions between the lines, which are harder to make.

Plus, rather than running on the outside of the full-back he is darting between full-back and centre-back, while he is getting into the box to collect cut-backs or rebounds. In previous seasons he would be on the periphery, watching on.

Perhaps most impressive of all was his finishing, his composure: one-touch hit, accurate, low and hard.

Still only 27, there are still doubts that Forrest can play in the Premier League but with his recent career trajectory there is still plenty of time to run in the act and plenty of defenders to give sleepless nights to.

• READ MORE: Scottish Football Live: Celtic defender to leave in January | Gerrard gives Rangers transfer update | Lennon ‘flattered’ with Ireland link