370 appearances, 82 goals and on Wednesday a new four-year contract. Unsung and even derided at times by his own fans, James Forrest is now one of the first names on the team-sheet and is set to cement himself as a Celtic legend.
The winger will be 32 by the time his new deal expires. At that point the window for a move down south or abroad – rumoured in the past – will surely have closed. The player himself has said he is “delighted” to be at Celtic Park and why wouldn’t he be? The winner of 17 trophies and the current PFA Scotland Player of the Year – all at his boyhood club he joined at the age of nine.
“I’m absolutely delighted to extend my stay here and I’m looking forward to winning more league titles and cups with the club. If you ask any player or member of staff, they all know how much the fans mean to the club and how big this club is,” he said. “It’s great to be here, especially when you’re winning trophies and doing well, it’s a great feeling.”
It’s not been all plain sailing for Forrest, though. While his talent has never been in doubt, there have been times in his Celtic career where injuries and inconsistency have threatened his future at the club.
It was Neil Lennon who oversaw then 18-year old Forrest’s burst onto the scene in 2010. He marked his debut with a goal in a 4-0 win over Motherwell. When Aiden McGeady left that summer, hopes were high among the Bhoys support that they had a ready-made replacement. After a year being eased into the first-team squad, Forrest’s star continued to rise in the 2011/12 campaign.
43 appearances, two Young Player of the Year awards, a place on FIFA’s list of 13 players to watch and a rumoured call up to the GB Olympic football team: the world was at his feet. But an injury suffered in the League Cup final ended his season prematurely and led to a succession of further problems. His next two years were marred by a series of knee and muscle issues and without a prolonged period of fitness, his form dipped.
When he rejected the offer of a new contract in 2016 – a season in which he scored just twice in 33 games and fell out of favour with manager Ronny Deila – it appeared inevitable he was heading for the Parkhead exit door.
However, the arrival of Brendan Rodgers would change everything.
The Rodgers rejuvenation
The former Liverpool manager could see the potential was still there. After Forrest scored the first league goal of the Rodgers era, he was immediately handed a new three-year deal. At a time where fellow winger Patrick Roberts was establishing himself as a darling in the eyes of the Parkhead faithful, the Scot’s hard work and determination began to win round his detractors. An invincible treble later and a place in Celtic history was ensured no matter what followed. As it turned out, the best was yet to come.
The 2017/18 season would prove to be the seminal point of Forrest’s Celtic career. With Roberts struggling with injury, he was given the chance to nail down a spot in Rodgers first-choice line-up – something he managed with startling effect. 31 league starts were the most he had ever managed and for the first time he breached double figures for goals. 17 of them in total, including a strike in the League Cup final for the second year running and a first senior hat-trick.
Still, there was one thing missing from his résumé: a goal in an Old Firm derby. When Celtic hosted Rangers in April 2018 needing a win to seal their seventh consecutive league title, the outcome appeared predetermined. Rangers left-back Andy Halliday was terrorised as the Hoops ran riot, Forrest netting a stunning solo goal in a 5-0 humiliation of their greatest rivals.
The peak years
Now fully trusted by both the management team and supporters, Forrest continues to go from strength to strength. Another 17 goals last year included arguably his most important when he scored the winning goal in what was effectively a title-deciding Old Firm encounter. In August, he became the first Celtic player since Paul McStay to score in 11 consecutive seasons for the club. Having already found the net 10 times this season, it will be no surprise were he to break the 20-goal barrier. Once again under the guidance of Lennon, things are coming full circle as Forrest enters his peak years.
A glance at the stats tells you all you need to know about his recent ascendancy. 114 appearances in the last two seasons is only four less than the amount he managed in double the timeframe between 2012 and 2016. At that pace, by the time his new contract expires he will have passed the milestone of 500 and be pushing for a place in the top 10 of the club’s all-time appearance makers.
His loyalty to Celtic in an era where it has never been easier to be drawn away by the flashy lights and big money contracts of Europe’s top leagues is to be applauded. If Forrest sees out the rest of his playing days at Paradise, there will be no denying him a place in the pantheon of Celtic greats.