James Forrest: Parkhead’s Prestwick darling

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Ailura

Rory Clark
Sports Editor

No matter how many inches of Scottish newspaper columns are devoted to either one of the country’s bigoted brethren in the form of the Old Firm, there’s never going to be any getting away from the Lisbon Lions. Celtic’s near-mythical men, allegedly all born within 30 miles of Celtic Park, were the first British side to win the European Cup. Europe’s elite-level club competition, the current stomping ground of Ronaldo, Messi, Mbappé and co, was at the time a mere plaything of Lennox and Auld, Johnstone and Wallace. This was a side that took on Grande Inter, the all-conquering Milanese outfit of Helenio Herrera, and won. This cannot be understated. Inter Milan were arguably Europe’s greatest club side of that era. They went into the 1967 final against Celtic as reigning Italian champions and they had already won the European Cup twice in that decade alone. Yet, the underdogs came through. Heralded as a victory for football, Celtic and their four-strong front line unlocked Herrera’s catenaccio, his defensive-minded “door bolt” rent asunder at the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon.

Captain on that day was centre-half, Billy McNeill. The late McNeill has been awarded the One Club Man honour, handed out by Basque football club Athletic Bilbao. The award seems to be almost trivial but let us not forget that Bilbao are staunchly wedded to the idea of national identity (all squad members are usually born in, or at least have a parental connection to, the Basque region) and the Glaswegian singularity of the Lisbon Lions makes McNeill a fitting recipient for the honour. I have no doubt that any Celtic fan would tell you McNeill embodied everything and anything green and white and when he retired, he did so as the club’s record appearance maker, a stat he still covets to this day.

The old skipper probably won’t lose any sleep about surrendering his record to any of the current Celtic cohort. The title of “one-club man” wouldn’t be lost on any one of Kieran Tierney, Mikey Johnstone or Callum McGregor but the question of how long this will be the case lingers. Turn your focus to James Forrest and this appears to be less of a problem. Forrest seems like he has been around for much longer than he actually has. Someone once remarked to me that he will forever be a 19-year-old prodigy in his own eye. I believe this is quite a fair assertion. Having joined Celtic’s youth academy in 2002, scarcely aged 11, he made the transition to full-time squad member in 2010. He’s been around for a while then. Now, Celtic academy graduates tend to have the best of both worlds at their feet. They ply their trade at the biggest club in Scotland which is both a blessing and a curse, given that they will have near-enough 60,000 watching them at home games. The spotlight would have been unfairly bright on Forrest too. A certain Aiden McGeady left Celtic around the same time Forrest broke into the first team. McGeady’s growth at Parkhead was exponential as he emerged from the youth setup at Parkhead, and he richly deserved his move away, and luckily (or unluckily) for Forrest, he vacated the same right-wing spot that he sought to make his own.

There couldn’t have been a brighter start for the wee man from Prestwick. In his first full season, 2010/11, he made an electric start. Two goals in his first four league appearances would be Neil Lennon’s reward for trusting youth. However, a barren three months followed, an unfortunately symptomatic period which would doubtlessly be used by lazy critics to tar Forrest’s entire career with the same brush. There was perhaps a time when this tarring and feathering would have been apt for the now 27-year-old winger. His breakthrough into Celtic’s first team would be followed by seasons of half-dozen goal hauls, by no means a paltry return but you would struggle to argue its merit being anything other than meagre. As gaffer Lennon left for Bolton, leaving all memories of a Forrest-less victory over Barcelona behind, Norwegian Ronny Deila came in. It seemed as if Deila had no plans for the wee man and clearly disgruntled, he refused to put pen to paper on a new contract. Parkhead outgrew Deila, but his replacement Brendan Rodgers and the arrival of young starlet Patrick Roberts made Forrest’s return much less of a foregone conclusion. Rodgers strengthened his attack as soon as he came in, getting the best out of the already mercurial Tom Rogic and bringing in supreme talent in Scott Sinclair. Forrest had to do more than just earn his salt.

He passed this test with flying colours. Since Ulsterman Rodgers came to the fore, Jimmy picked up any gauntlet that was thrown down to him. He was directly involved in about a quarter of Celtic’s century of goals for their “invincible” season of 2016/17. He reached double figures for goals in the following season for the first time in his career, albeit before the halfway point of New Year. Never a player to shy from the spotlight, Forrest scored the third in a 5-0 rout of Rangers to secure Celtic’s seventh consecutive title. Save for Scott Brown, James Forrest is the only player to have played a part in every single one of these league titles. His rise and rise resulted in a nomination for Players’ Player of the Year. The year ended with Forrest winning his 26th cap for the Scottish National Team. Having not scored in any of his first 24, he went on to score five goals in his next two matches, including a memorable, self-made volley against Albania.

It’s easy to see why the Celtic faithful love Forrest. He speaks in broad Glaswegian and he’s been forged at Lennoxtown. Part of the Lisbon Lions tradition of bringing through the youngsters remains steadfast in the East End of Glasgow and there’s always excitement when they see the latest fresh face emerge innocent from the youth setup. James Forrest is no different. He’s quickly becoming their everyman, the one to step up in the big moments and ensure that they get over the line by some means. His spectacular effort against Aberdeen in the recent Scottish Cup semi-final is testament to that. He might not possess the fleetness of foot of his predecessor Jimmy Johnstone and he certainly doesn’t have the robustness of McNeill but he’s as good as Celtic have at the moment. As long as No. 49 is on the ball, the Bhoys know they’re in safe hands.