JAMES Forrest is prepared to personally decline the invitation to appear for Team GB at London 2012 in order to be ready for Celtic's Champions League qualifying ties.
The 20-year-old has celebrated major recognition twice in the space of a week, being nominated for the Cheque Centre PFA Scotland young player of the year award and formally receiving notification on Friday morning that he had been given a place on Stuart Pearce's 80-man list of possible names for the Olympic football event. That number will eventually be whittled down to 18 names by the time the competition begins on July 25 – with Fifa having released a hardline statement last month that "the release of the under-23 players by clubs for Olympic football tournaments will be compulsory".
The Parkhead club have learned that his team-mates Scott Brown and Adam Matthews have failed to make the cut, but with Celtic's third-round Champions League qualifying ties set to take place between July 31 and August 8, and the SPL season opener to come on August 4, a full-blown club versus country row is likely to ensue should Forrest make the final squad. Fortunately for them, however, the player – currently recuperating from bone bruising to the shin sustained in the Scottish Communities League Cup final – indicated last night he is likely to knock back the offer to appear alongside the likes of David Beckham, Gareth Bale and possibly even Steven Fletcher in order to assist his club's attempts to secure the estimated £15 million bounty on offer in the Champions League.
Currently only seven of the players contacted about their availability have formally declined the chance to participate. "It would be a great honour to play in the Olympics," said Forrest. "I think a lot of folk have received letters, although I haven't spoken to Stuart Pearce. But club comes first, obviously, and if the club has got qualifiers then I will be staying at the club."
Galling as it may be to miss out on a tournament which could boost his profile tenfold, it would be almost impossible not to sense the significance of the upcoming Champions League qualifiers. Much as Forrest enjoyed featuring in the club's Europa League ties, returning Celtic to the elite club competition in Europe next season already resembles the quest for the holy grail. "I think the European games stand out for me," Forrest said. "That's where you want to be – playing against the best teams. The Udinese away game, I thought we did really well there. There have been a few I could pick out but that was the type of game that gives us a lot of hope for the next campaign."
"I came through the youths [at Celtic] and have always been at the [club's] Champions League home games," the player added. "The atmosphere is really good. This season it was good too but if we get to the Champions League it will get even better. I normally was in the seats right behind the away dugouts. The experience of watching teams like Man U and Barcelona was great. It showed how Celtic could compete in Europe and that's where we want to get back to. It was obviously good growing up and watching those games but I don't want to do that anymore – I want to be out there playing. We have to make sure we get the qualifiers right in the summer."
The decision facing Forrest is a big one for a young player to have to make. Were he inclined to participate in London 2012, Forrest would join a list of Scots to have appeared in the Olympic football tournament which includes legendary former Celtic goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson, then of Queen's Park, who played for Team GB in London in 1948.
However, his club are not interested in the historical significance. "Without a doubt we would want James for the qualifier," said first-team coach Alan Thompson. "He has been out for about a month now, and he possibly might be out for the rest of the next five games. I think Neil [Lennon] has to speak to someone from the Olympic Committee and discuss that situation but it would be a problem if we have got qualifiers at the end of July. Listen, we might be jumping the gun here, there is an 80-man pool that will be whittled down to 18, so he might not get in the 18. Scott Brown will be jumping through hula hoops to know that he is not in that pool of players."
Considering how many hoops he had to jump through to receive a solitary cap for England, it is slightly surprising to hear Thompson say that he wouldn't have fancied appearing in the competition as a player.
"It wouldn't have appealed to me at all," Thompson said. "I liked the break at the end of the season – unless it was a Euros or a World Cup. I would guess for people like David Beckham who are coming to the end of their careers, a chance to play in an Olympic Games and possibly win a gold medal, it is great for people like that. But I think if you are asking the Wayne Rooneys of this world, people like that, they would need a break. Preparation for our European qualifiers will start immediately after the last league game. When they start back from pre-season, on July 3 or 4 or whatever it is, they need to be coming in firing. You need to come back ready because it is vital that we try to get through those qualifying stages. It is natural to fear the worst and think that we could lose him. But hopefully we can resolve that situation."