Celtic’s winger, James Forrest, is rapidly closing in on his 200th appearance for the club. Has there ever been a player so divisive to make so many appearances for the club? On the pro half of the divide sits those who think of Forrest as a young guy who they can vicariously live their dreams through. A good player and a difference maker. The negative stance has been made clear; he is an extremely limited player who, when his explosive pace has burned itself out, will be left with nothing.
The truth, for me at least, rests somewhere in the middle.
At his very best Forrest can terrorise opponents, darting this way and that, while the exasperated fullback witnesses only fleeting glimpses of his clean heels. Sadly, his best is seen all too rarely. This season will be the first campaign that has seen Forrest play more than 20 league games since the 2010-11 season. Injuries have of course hampered the winger, to the point rumours were rife that the Club changed his car to an automatic in an attempt to ease their regularity, but Forrest is not without blame. All too often he exudes a passive aura, as though his inconsistency is no fault of his own, that it comes with the territory of being an enigmatic wide-man. This theory has been dispelled with the arrival of Scott Sinclair who has delivered with startling regularity.
The main bone of contention concerning Forrest is his versatility. In Scotland, his routine of getting to the by-line and delivering a driven shot, or a beautifully weighted chip into the box are clearly a potent weapon, but for Celtic to take the next step into continental football, his arsenal is just too limited. Top class defenders with experience are too canny to be duped by such a rudimentary tactic. Guile, diversion, power, strength and if necessary a touch of brutality must be woven alongside his undoubted pace before he begins to have Champions League defenders quaking in their boots.
For me, Paddy Roberts is, by far, the more accomplished player. The problem is that he is a loan player who has shown no real desire to prolong his temporary spell at the club. Rodgers, clearly wishing to build a success that is more than fleeting, is wisely reticent to place so much time and effort into the career of a player who will not benefit the club long term.
I do not wish for this to become yet another ‘let’s give Forrest a good old kicking’. He has had enough of those, and, if we are being honest, it is not something he deserves. After looking as though he was ready to leave the club in the summer, Forrest has remarkably turned his career around. For this, like many of the Lazarus-like improvements in so many players, the praise must rest at the feet of Brendan Rodgers. With the gaffer’s instructions ringing in his ears, Forrest has had the most productive season of his life. Only February and he is just 2 goals shy of his career best and has already surpassed his highest tally in terms of assists. He is a player improving at an exponential rate. Whether this improvement can continue to the level where he can be a difference maker in Europe, as he has so often shown to be this season domestically, remains to be seen.
Brendan Rodgers, with one eye on next season, recently said, “We will always push to make a signing if it is right for the club and right for the team. I have never been given a ceiling.” He went on to say, “we need players who want to take Celtic forward. Whether they are a million quid, £6m, £7m or whatever, the club know I will bring that to them.” This must surely involve augmenting his attacking options.
The gauntlet has been thrown, it is up to Forrest to continue to improve and develop the requisite talents needed to grow with the club. And remember, the guy is still only 25.