James Forrest Celtic talents never in question as Brendan Rodgers names key element that helped secure top team return

-Credit: (Image: SNS Group)
-Credit: (Image: SNS Group)

Brendan Rodgers has talked a great deal about writing stories over these past few weeks of a sometimes tumultuous campaign.

So it’s kind of fitting that he will place his faith in two men with a proven record of delivering silver linings in tomorrow’s final chapter. Callum McGregor and James Forrest have been over this course so many times before that it’s hard just to keep count. Between them they have lifted 44 trophies during a combined 24 years spent in the frontline as serial Celtic winners.

And they’ll be asked to go again one more time tomorrow when Rodgers sends his men out into battle for the last trophy of the season and a mouthwatering Scottish Cup Final showdown with city rivals Rangers. McGregor’s involvement as captain, of course, was never really in any doubt so long as stayed clear of the treatment table. Forrest, though, has fought his way off the fringes in recent weeks to claim centre stage after kicking his heels on the bench for most of the last three seasons.

And he’s done so with such energy and enthusiasm that he’s managed to play his way into Scotland’s squad for the Euros as a by-product. It does, however, beg a rather obvious question. Why has it taken Rodgers quite so long to reach the conclusion that, even at the age of 32, Forrest was being so routinely underutilised, for so long?

And, as the Parkhead boss returned to Hampden yesterday to get the countdown started, he was probably asking himself the same question. “It’s an interesting one,” Rodgers mused when asked about the veteran winger’s crucial contribution over the critical, closing stretch of the campaign.

“I looked back over the last few years and James was an important member of the squad, but maybe wasn't the starter he once was. If you look at Liel Ababa and Daizen Maeda and Jota there were the players that were in front of him.

“He still had a very important part to play, even though the game time might not be so much. And then we start this season again where he has been on the periphery at the beginning because of those players.

“Then Liel moved on and Daizen was injured and I always felt James was a top class player. As the season went on and as I watched him more in training, I then had to make a decision - and the decision for the team and for the club was that he had to play.

“I know what I am going to get from James. I get that high level quality, he can look after the ball and create and score a goal. And any deficiencies he has in his game now, because he is older, we have to try to deal with.

“I can’t sit here and say that at the beginning of the season I knew he would do what he is doing now. But I knew his talent and I am so happy he has been able to demonstrate that at the perfect time. He’s also a big game player and that was one of the key elements of bringing him back into the team. I knew what I was going to get.

“He has played in big games, makes the big contributions and, come big games, scores big goals. So I am absolutely delighted for him because he is such a humble guy. He has worked hard every single day waiting for the moments and waiting for the opportunities. And when they came he elevated the team.”

It’s safe to say Forrest may have taken himself by surprise too, to such an extent that he had already booked up a summer holiday in the full expectation that he wouldn’t be spending the first few weeks of June in Germany. That had to be scrapped on Wednesday morning when Steve Clarke named him in Scotland’s 28 man provisional squad.

And Rodgers smiled: “I am really pleased for him. I spoke to him this morning and he has had to get his money back on the holiday that he had booked. I am delighted for him. What I love about the Scottish boys up here - James and Callum - and all the other guys - in all my time up here in Scotland working with these players, I have been in other dressing rooms with other nationalities and you get one or two who want to pull themselves out of international squads.

“Every one of these guys is so proud to play for Scotland. They all want to go. I can see the smile on James’s face and it is absolutely brilliant. It is great for Scotland as well. You have someone of that talent and quality who has hit form at the right time for Celtic and Scotland.

“I am delighted for him and Steve knows what he will get from him as I saw what he brought in my first spell here when he was absolutely outstanding for me at club level in the national team scoring hat-tricks. He has not featured in the past number of years as much as he would have liked but what he has always shown is that he has that quality that is required certainly at the international level and I am sure he will able to help Scotland. I am delighted for him and the other Celtic boys.”

McGregor, of course, would have been one of the first name’s on Clarke’s big list of boarding cards. And he’ll be key again tomorrow on derby day, having made a habit of controlling this fixture from the centre of the pitch for so long.Rodgers, in fact, believes his return to the team from the treatment room was the moment Celtic’s season clicked back into top gear.

He said: “It was critical. We have other players that can play in that position and do a really good job. But we don’t have anyone in the squad who has the view of the game Callum has.

“He is up there with the very highest level players I have worked with. In terms of professionalism, preparation, he is constantly thinking about the game, the club, the performance.

“I have been so impressed by him as a leader. When I was here first time he was one of the quiet leaders around the team.

“Browny was obviously a big influence and an absolutely immense captain. But coming back here and seeing how Callum leads has been so refreshing because he doesn’t need to scream, he doesn’t need to shout. He inspires by what he does every single day, how he trains, how he prepares.

“And him coming back was absolutely critical for this team because we don’t have many who see the game like he does. When he plays to the level he gets us through the pitch much quicker and he is really inspirational.”