Neil Lennon: Celtic’s season would have been different if James Forrest had been fit

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IT would be quite wrong to suggest that familiarity has bred contempt over the years when it comes to Celtic supporters and James Forrest.

The winger, an ever-present during the Parkhead club’s unprecedented spell of domestic dominance, is widely admired and respected by fans. He is, with no fewer than 19 major honours to his name, well on his way to becoming one of their all-time greats. 

Had some of them, though, perhaps started to take Forrest’s efforts for granted somewhat before he picked up his injury last year? When a player features as regularly and performs as consistently as the Scotland internationalist it is inevitable that his contribution to their cause becomes overlooked a little.

Neil Lennon, who is hoping to name the wide man in his squad for the first time in nearly five months tomorrow afternoon, suspects that maybe a few onlookers did fail to fully appreciate his worth. “You could say that, yeah,” he said as he looked ahead to the league meeting with St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park.

However, if any of Celtic’s followers were ambivalent about the 29-year-old before the 2020/21 campaign got underway back in August they won’t be now; they have performed woefully in the Premiership, bombed in the Europa League and been turfed out of the Betfred Cup in his absence.

Many factors have contributed to their annus horribilis; the Covid-19 pandemic, not having any fans inside stadiums, match cancellations, the failure of big money signings to settle and shine and positive coronavirus tests have all taken their toll. 

But would their bid to make Scottish football history by completing 10-In-A-Row have failed so spectacularly had Forrest been available? His experience and ability would surely have proved invaluable.

Would things have worked out differently if Forrest hadn’t suffered a serious ankle injury that required surgery in November? Lennon is in no doubt they would have. “Absolutely, no question,” he said. “He is a top player, a top boy and he loves the club.”

The Northern Irishman, whose side is 18 points behind Rangers in the top flight with a game in hand, has certainly been pleased to see the Ayrshireman, who limped off against Riga in Latvia back in September, involved at Lennoxtown once again in recent days.

“He was training Monday and Tuesday and he went to see a specialist on Wednesday,” he said. “We were hoping for the all-clear. We may have him in the squad for the weekend.

“We have missed him, there’s no question of that. Any team would miss a player of that quality. His contribution to this club has been unbelievable, magnificent. That has certainly been the case in my time since coming back.”

Forrest, like all wingers, has been prone to occasional dips in form over the years. He has games where he frustrates onlookers and fails to make any significant impact. He certainly has his detractors among the Celtic support. But Lennon knows his value to his side. 

“Before the lockdown last year he was up to 16 goals,” he said. “He probably had as many assists as well. He’s been doing that consistently for the best part of six or seven years.”

Forrest, who has played in the Celtic first team for 11 seasons solid now, turns 30 in the summer. Can he continue to perform at the level he has been for over a decade in the years to come? His position requires explosive pace and good close control and those attributes wane over time.

But Lennon is confident he can continue to be a big player for Celtic. He has certainly sensed his disappointment at not being involved and his eagerness to get back on the pitch. “He’s had a stellar career so far and I think there’s a lot more to come from him,” he said.

“We had the lockdown so there were two months of resting and that would have been more than enough for him. This has been a real hammer blow for him mentally. It’s such a significant season and he’s contributed in all the other seasons.”

Forrest, who will be hoping to get a run of games between now and May and secure his place in the Scotland squad for the Euro 2020 finals in the summer, may not have the same high profile as some of his team mates despite the length of time he has spent in the Celtic side and the silverware he has helped them accumulate.

But Lennon believes he is just as important to the Glasgow club as Scott Brown, Odsonne Edouard or Leigh Griffiths and is excited about the prospect of him taking to the field once again, either tomorrow in Perth or elsewhere in the coming weeks.

“He’s one of those kids who doesn’t go on social media, doesn’t court public opinion,” he said. “He’s a bit like Callum McGregor. They just come in and play football, they’re natural born footballers.

“He just loves playing football. He will have been missing playing more than anyone. We have missed him around the place and certainly missed him on the pitch so it’s great to have him back.”

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