Why James Forrest must be celebrated in this age of the mercenary

If a week is a long time in football, then 15 years is a lifetime.  Over the past decade and a half in the Hoops, James Forrest has seen it all.  The highs of league championship successes and the unique achievement of winning a Quadruple Treble, and the lows of trophy-less seasons and the agonising failure to win the 10.

While countless players and managers have come and gone, James Forrest – like the supporters in the stands – has been a constant.  In 467 appearances for Celtic, Forrest has accumulated 22 major domestic honours and has both scored and assisted more than 100 times each in his career to date.

The word ‘legend’ is often overused in today’s football dialogue, however, where James Forrest is concerned, his record certainly puts him in that level of conversation.

Tonight, when the Basque side Athletic Club pays a visit to Paradise, the Celtic support will get their opportunity to show their appreciation to one of modern football’s rare things; a one club man.

It is fitting that Athletic Club provides the opposition for Forrest’s testimonial match.  Back in 2019 Athletic Club awarded their revered “One Club Man” award to another Celt, the great Lisbon Lion Billy McNeill.

Forrest might not quite be on McNeill’s level, but after 15 years of committed service, the quiet man is due his moment in the spotlight.

It started with a goal

The 2009/10 season may be one that is best forgotten and written off as an unmitigated disaster as Tony Mowbray’s Celtic stumbled from one dismal result to another.

After a particularly demoralising 4-0 defeat away to St. Mirren in March 2010, Mowbray was eventually relieved of his duties as Celtic manager.  By this point, the season was all but over.  Out of Europe (twice), out of the League Cup, and trailing Rangers in the league, Neil Lennon was given the task of steadying the ship until the end of the season.

Under Lennon, Celtic made positive strides.  The Hoops won the final 8 league games of the season, including a Glasgow derby at Celtic Park, but lost out in the Scottish Cup semi-final to Ross County as the frailties of the Mowbray era still lurked.

As the season petered out, Lennon turned to youth and promoted James Forrest, a player he had coached at youth-level, to the first team for the third last game of the season against Motherwell.  Forrest made his entrance off the bench on 81 minutes in front of just 24,000 spectators at Celtic Park.  6 minutes later, his name was on the scoresheet for the first of 101 times, and counting.

The following season saw Neil Lennon take the job on a permanent basis and also saw James Forrest promoted to a full-time member of the first-team squad.  While the league continued to elude Celtic, Forrest did end the season with his first piece of silverware, coming on as a substitute as Celtic saw off Motherwell 3-0 in the Scottish Cup final.

Breakout and Scotland’s “Light in the Darkness”

Having made a positive impression during his first full season with the first team, 2011/12 would go down as Forrest’s breakout season. The young winger made 43 appearances, including 8 in Europe, and contributed 9 goals and 7 assists as Celtic secured a League and Scottish Cup double.

Along the way, Forrest was described by then SFA Performance Director Mark Wotte as “the light in the darkness of Scottish football.”

Although not blessed with the natural flair and trickery of a winger in the Jimmy Johnstone mould, Forrest’s game was based more around his pace and directness with the ball.  Head down and shoulders hunched while running with the ball at his feet, the sight of James Forrest terrorising defenders was becoming a weekly occurrence.  So much so that it drew the attention of Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp who was accredited with a serious interest in taking Forrest to the English Premiership.



Arrested Development

A run-in with the law and a series of injuries hampered his development over the next four seasons, limiting Forrest to just 69 league appearances as Celtic began their current era of domination in the domestic game.

Despite his reduced involvement, Forrest still made valuable contributions during those injury-hit campaigns under Neil Lennon and Ronny Deila, with the European stage becoming a favoured arena in which to perform.

An impressive performance off the bench at Spartak Moscow helped Celtic claim their first away win in the Champions League in 2012/13, while a last-gasp goal at home to Shakhtar Karagandy the following season saw Celtic overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit to reach the Champions League group stage.

Forrest completed his domestic medal haul in the 2014/15 season by adding the League Cup to the 3 league titles and 2 Scottish Cups he had previously won.  He scored the second goal in the final before missing a penalty as Dundee United were cast aside 2-0.

But with injuries continuing to plague his development and game time further limited after rejecting a new contract in 2015/16, Forrest found himself the target of the ‘boo-boys’ who felt the winger was not living up to his potential.


That feeling began to change during Brendan Rodgers’ first season in charge.  The injuries that had cost Forrest so much game time over the previous seasons disappeared, and the winger committed his future to the club, signing a 3-year contract.

The Invincible Treble-winning season will forever go down in Celtic folklore. During the campaign, Forrest made his 200th appearance for Celtic against Alloa in the League Cup.  He also scored, won a penalty, and put in a man-of-the-match performance against Aberdeen in the League Cup final as Celtic claimed their 100th trophy.

Forrest ended the season with 8 goals, 13 assists, and 3 trophies from 46 appearances across all competitions.

Celtic’s level of domestic dominance during this period was unprecedented and James Forrest continued to play his part.  In the 2017/18 season, he became the first Celt since Bobby Lennox to score in three winning League Cup finals.  Later, in the same campaign, Forrest achieved a personal first by scoring his first Glasgow derby goal in a 5-0 rout of Rangers.

Over the next couple of seasons, Forrest would add winning goals against Rangers and a vital away goal in Rome against Lazio to his resume as he proved his worth as a big game player time and again.

Re-birth under Ange

2020/21 was supposed to be the year that Celtic claimed their 10th league title in a row.  Sadly, we all know how that season panned out as Covid and an unhappy dressing room saw Celtic end the season trophy-less.

Individually, Forrest’s season was hampered by injury, missing 24 league games between October to March as Celtic meekly surrendered the title.

The arrival of Ange Postecoglou for the 2021/22 season breathed new life into Celtic and James Forrest.  No longer a guaranteed starter and still dogged by the odd injury worry, Ange moulded Forrest into an important squad player, capable of making an impact off the bench, and able to guide younger more inexperienced players through the rigours of a season competing with Celtic.

A tenth title in eleven years was duly delivered, followed by a treble last season taking Forrest to 22 honours in 15 seasons in the Hoops.  Remarkably, Forrest has scored at least one league goal in each of those 15 seasons.

His last competitive appearance (for now) for Celtic came as a 92nd minute substitute for Jota in the Scottish Cup final win against Inverness Caledonian Thistle.  A rare moment of sentimentality from Ange Postecoglou for a rare ‘One Club Man’.

James Forrest, 467 not out.

Kevin McCluskie

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