Of all the youth brought through by Celtic in recent years, few have excited and frustrated in equal measure like James Forrest. Brought into the set up by Neil Lennon during his time as interim manager, Forrest made an instant impact with a goal just six minutes into his début against Motherwell, followed by an outstanding preseason campaign which included being named player of the tournament at the 2010 Emirates cup. Since then, however, injury and loss of form have seen Forrest’s opportunities limited and have left the Celtic support wondering if we will ever seen him fulfil his obvious potential.
There is no doubt that James Forrest has the quality to make it at Celtic. Few could forget how he, with a little help from Anthony Stokes, almost single handedly saved Neil Lennon’s job in October of 2011, when he dragged Celtic from out of the mire to claim a 3-3 draw at Rugby park. We know what Forrest is capable of; yet, sadly, such performances have been restricted by a string of injuries and a failure to find form quickly enough having returned. There is no certainty in whether or not he will play well; the only certainty when he does play seems to be that he will get injured. This leaves a huge question mark over his future at Celtic, particularly with a new manager in place; obvious talent he may have, but will the club want to continue shelling out wages for a player who spends most of his time on the treatment table, and when he does return, seems to take some time regaining his best form?
For now, let’s look at the positives. James Forrest is clearly the sort of player who can excite Celtic fans. Pace to burn, the ability to beat a man and a decent football brain. He can be a throwback to the classic Celtic winger; direct, pacey and with a real attacking flair. On his day, he can be one of the best players in the Celtic squad, however these days, particularly in the past couple of years, seem increasingly few and far between. James Forrest’s story harks back to that of Aiden McGeady; bursting onto the scene towards the end of the season as an 18 year old, marking his debut with a goal and continuing to impress as he continued to work his way into the first team. Such was McGeady’s progression that by 2008 he was considered one of the best young players in Britain, putting in stellar performances in the Champions League against the likes of Barcelona and AC Milan, before commanding a fee believed to be in the region of £9.5m from Spartak Moscow, where he continued to impress. Unfortunately for Forrest, who in the early days was believed by many to be better than McGeady at that age, such progression has not been forthcoming.
This is where the concern should lie for Celtic fans; plenty of players suffer from injuries, some on a more worryingly frequent basis than others. Many come back stronger than before, in the case of a serious injury, while others continue to show commendable form when fit. The issue when it comes to Forrest seems to be that his persistent injuries have come at a critical time in his career. As an 18-19 year old, he made the step up into the first team. This is the age when he should have been developing to the point of being properly ready for the demands of first team professional football. He is now 23. This should be the point where he is showing that he has what it takes to be a footballer at the highest level. Unfortunately, his progress has been so hampered by injuries that there are now question marks as to whether he is capable of achieving this level, and as to whether he is now capable of achieving the heights of which he was once clearly so capable of achieving. This is the real issue for James Forrest; it is not just that he is injury prone. It’s not just a case of finding a way to keep him fit for an extended period of time. We may now have to face up to the possibility that his development has been so stunted by continuous injury that he is now incapable of achieving the level that he once had the potential to achieve.
This summer, James Forrest is rumoured to be a transfer target for Everton, with a figure being bandied about that could reach something in the region of £8m. For a club like us, this would be difficult to turn down for any player. A couple of years ago, I personally would have been dreading such an offer to come in, desperate to see Forrest stay and in a position where a handsome transfer fee wouldn’t seem like compensation enough for the loss of such a promising young player. However, with Celtic now in a situation where Forrest may be incapable of achieving his potential, and one where even if he does still have this potential, he will likely spend much of his career lying on the treatment table, it seems like an excellent move for us to take the transfer fee and shift a player off the wage bill who seems to deliver more practise to the medical staff than he does performances on the pitch. £8m could be used to further develop our youth system so that we can produce the next James Forrest, or invested on another young, uncut diamond to be developed into British football’s next hot property. Either way, if such a figure is accurate and interest from Everton is serious, it seems likely that we will have to bid farewell to James Forrest, and watch him warm the Everton treatment table from here on in.