Today’s papers brought with them news of Forrest turning down a new contract at Celtic. It’s an interesting dynamic, because fans aren’t exactly heartbroken that the Scottish international looks set to be leaving, and yet it’s the player shunning the club rather than the other way around.
Let us recall the 2011/12 season and what James Forrest’s career prospects looked like then. The winger appeared the natural successor to Aiden McGeady, who’d left in an £9.5 million deal two seasons prior. He was 20 years old, one of the most exciting young players in Britain and a mainstay in a Celtic side that won the title after three straight years of Rangers triumphs. At the end of the campaign he scooped Young Player of the Year awards from the players, football writers, the SPFL and his club. The sky was the limit.
Unfortunately, that was the peak of his career at Parkhead. Since that time there has been no discernible development in Forrest’s talents and certainly not his career. The club were willing to take the chance he would reach his undoubted potential, but most fans have ran out of patience. He’s become an increasingly divisive figure in the Scottish game after looking like our brightest, young attacking prospect a short time ago.
One stick to beat him with regards his delivery from wide areas. To put it bluntly, Forrest’s crossing is shoddy. It’s not as much of a problem in the Scottish Premiership, where a breakaway causes mass panic in opposition defences and the winger doesn’t have to put in a pin-point cross so much as just find the man standing completely on his own. But in Europe and matches for Scotland, he often finds himself in great areas on the flank, only to have his delivery comfortably repelled by opposing defenders.
Due to this deficiency, some critics labelled him one of the country’s most overrated players. After all, what use is a winger who can’t cross? While it’s an understandable point, it was too simplistic and overlooked how Forrest could impact a game just with his presence.
Few modern day Scottish wide men have consistently terrified opposing full backs as much as Forrest. Even if, once he was past his man, he wasn’t as much of a threat as he may have appeared, it was still enough to do significant damage to the psyche of his opposite number and the defence overall.
Back-lines are a unit, when there’s a chink in the armour it can be exposed in other areas as they have to compensate for the weak spot. This can mean a centre back taking a greater interest in the activities of the man to his right or left, potentially distracting him from duties in the centre, or a defensive line dropping back as a whole to cover the space in behind, thereby allowing Celtic as a team to push further up the park.
Even if they aren’t forced into physically dealing with the issue, just getting into their heads can bring with it a huge mental advantage. Forrest was able to do this in a manner other wingers weren’t through his frenzied style. There’s little subtlety to how he moves in or out of possession. When pressing opponents he tears after them like a dog chasing a tennis ball; when running with the football he goes straight at defenders, utilising an unorthodox style to jink past when pace alone won’t do. When he’s on his game, you know in no uncertain terms that he’s on the field, regardless of whether his final ball is on point or not. That’s a real strength to have. The trouble is that he’s very much a confidence player, and when he’s suffering his impact is often negligible.
He can build up a real head of steam over a period of a few weeks or months. What grinds him to a halt, and always has over his entire career, is injuries. Has there ever been a point in his Celtic career when Forrest has gone three months without getting injured? It’d needn’t be anything major. Sometimes just a hamstring or calf strain. But it’s enough to knock him off stride and when he returns to the team it’s almost impossible to walk straight back in. Not only do Celtic have great strength in depth, they win most of their matches. Regardless of whether you’re manager of Celtic or Dundee United, you don’t want to mess with a winning team. So Forrest, invariably, has to be patient for his chance and is then forced to build his confidence back up once more.
The club were ready to roll the dice on another four years, hoping that he’ll finally shake off the injury problems. He’s set to play more matches this season than he has in any campaign since 2011/12, but it’s still been an issue. He looked good, really good, particularly in Europe, at the start of the season. Then he picked up another minor injury and, even though he was quickly granted a place back in the team, he’s not been the same since. It’s very much a rinse, repeat situation.
If he’s moving away from Celtic because he believes he can go to a bigger club or a higher level then he’ll likely be mistaken. However, if he wants a situation where he’s undeniably a first choice player, and can come straight back into the starting XI after recovering from injury when those problems predictably flair up, then maybe he is making the right move to leave Celtic Park. Sometimes in football you need to go backwards to go forward. For Forrest’s development as a player, that’s maybe the best thing, and he’ll go with best wishes from Celtic and their fans – though very few tears.
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