Forrest has emerged as an unlikely candidate to be Celtic’s most important player this season

James Forrest’s career at Celtic has been under constant scrutiny ever since he scored on his debut against Motherwell at the age of 18. It’s true that homegrown often have more to prove to supporters than other players, but even recognising that context you’d say that Forrest has struggled to truly win over the Hoops support. Now 26 years of age, he’s changing people’s perceptions of his role in the Celtic team.

Much of the criticism that has previously come his way has been warranted, lacklustre seasons and frustrating performances became synonymous with the winger for a time. Many felt he failed to fully realise the potential he held when he burst onto the scene in 2010 and they were right.

However, over the last 18 months the Scotland international has slowly emerged into one of the most important players in Brendan Rodgers’ squad, to the point that he is now amongst the front runners to win the club’s player of the year award.

What’s more, he’s evolving his game to be much more than a simple right-sided attacking winger, adapting to a new formation that has played to his strengths and given him more responsibility, which he is grabbing with both hands. Has James Forrest finally arrived at Celtic?

Damaged goods

Before Brendan Rodgers arrived at Celtic, James Forrest’s position at the club was very much in doubt. After two frustrating seasons under manager Ronny Deila, he rejected a contract in February 2016, with his then deal set to run out last December. It seemed inevitable that he would either leave the club on a free transfer or for a minimal fee that summer. Celtic fans wouldn’t have argued, he was damaged goods and in their eyes irreparable.

Last season though he found renewed purpose and after pledging his future to the Hoops with a new contract, he set about trying to impress his new manager, as every player in the squad did. With serious competition for places in the team thanks to the presence of Patrick Roberts, he upped his game to new heights and actually kept the young Englishman out of the side for many months of the season. It was only until the closing stages of last term that the Man City loanee became a regular starter.

He became a creative force for Celtic, providing 13 assists for his teammates and scoring eight goals, a tally that was his finest since the 2011/12 season. Still not exactly a celebrated player compared to others, especially the mega popular Roberts, he had at least earned his spot in Brendan Rodgers squad and the trust of his manager.

A changing role

This season Forrest has only enhanced his reputation at Celtic Park, also bringing a new goalscoring edge to his game. While assisting plenty last term, this time around he’s had the confidence to score many more than he’s set-up, reaching double figures for goals with 10. It’s the first time he’s ever reached that milestone in a single season for the club and he managed it by early December. The assist count has dropped off, but it’s perhaps a sign that he’s found more belief within himself, something that’s allowed him to be far more ruthless in the final third.

He’s giving the impression he finally feels comfortable at Celtic. Years of growth and maturity is now paying off in a special way at the Hoops, at a critical time. With an injury to Patrick Roberts and no obvious natural back-up to Forrest, producing good form is more important now than it perhaps ever has been in his time at the club.

In Europe too he’s flourished in spells, especially impressive against German giants Bayern Munich at Celtic Park. He was the one Celtic player that really took the game to the visitors, performing with aplomb and assisting a goal that on another night might have produced a famous result.

Rodgers has even trusted him enough to give him more defensive responsibility, in recent weeks deploying him as a right wing-back, complementing a three-man defence formation. It’s something he’s adapted to well, finally showing the energy and desire to track back and help his teammates in his own half as much as the opponent’s.

This has unarguably been his finest few months in a Celtic shirt and on the current trajectory he’ll finish the campaign as one of the contenders for player of the year awards, something unthinkable less than two years ago.

The key now is finding the consistency and taking his form into the new year and the most important part of the season. If he can do that, he’ll have absolutely nothing to prove anymore.