THE return of James Forrest may well have come too late for Celtic this season and for Neil Lennon, but Scotland and Steve Clarke will be delighted to see his timely return to the pitch last weekend.

James has got so much going for him as a player, and I’m in no doubt that he would have made a massive difference to Celtic’s season had he been available. To be missing his ability to eliminate people has such a knock-on effect, and I think that is one of the reasons why Celtic haven’t done as well.

Normally as a coach you are telling people to move the ball this way or that, but when you see players going past people, it saves you a lot of work!
I don’t really know the ins and outs of the injury. I know my son works there, but I’ve never really asked! You don’t want to pry. But what I do know fine well is just how valuable he is.

If you think back to Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic team, for example, where he’s playing a 4-2-3-1 with two wide men, they could all eliminate people, and then you had a real target man or striker to supply. I think that’s when James was at his best.

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Celtic have also really been missing that option of the longer diagonal ball over the top with the winger coming in this season. It’s a pass that may not always come off, but if the opposition back four knows that you have that in your arsenal then they will naturally sit back a bit, which gives you more room to play.

I remember training with Scotland once at Hampden and I actually had to stop the session, because Barry Bannan got the ball in a kind of left-half position, and he knows Forrest can make this run, and Forrest knows that Barry can make the pass.

So, Barry’s hit this pass 45 yards, it’s missed the centre-half’s head by about two inches, James has run in, chested it down and smashed it in. It was everything that is beautiful about football, so I had to stop the training and we’ve all had a wee clap. This run was magnificent, and I think that’s what’s been missing from Celtic the last wee while that individual ability to beat people, and wide men who know when to go in behind.

Even if you don’t execute the pass, it tells the back four that the next time they try and hold a high line, you are going in there again. So, it takes them back. They’re missing that, they’re missing his goals, and I think they are missing that psychological blow to other teams. Teams will always think they are okay to defend against passing, but can they stop someone who can eliminate people? If the opposition double up on him, then you can move it and you’re a player up somewhere else. James had that.

He was having a bit of a frustrating time of it when I first came in as Scotland manager. I’d heard about him when I was at Celtic, then I was lucky enough to work with him at Scotland, but not enough. It was a time when he always seemed to be injured.

Here was this wonderful young talent who never failed to turn up to let the doctors examine him, and then it was decided through doctors from Scotland – and particularly from Celtic – that it would be best if he wasn’t involved.

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That was hugely frustrating for him, I used to see it in his face. At that time, when he was about 24 to 26, his mates like Stuart Armstrong and Scott Brown were all enjoying being with us. For me, he was really overprotected at that time.

I just liked him as a person and I felt sorry for him at that time. I also felt sorry for the coaches, seeing this wonderful kid walking dejectedly walking out the door of Mar Hall on a Sunday night.

There were many players who would just phone up and say, ‘Aw I canny make it’, and they didn’t get invited back too many times to be perfectly honest. It got to the point that it was affecting him. Once he got over that and people realised that he didn’t need protected, he didn’t have to be taken off after 70 minutes, this player we were all expecting developed to score goals and make goals. But he was held back for a couple of years by this.

I remember going to see him in a European tie for Celtic when he came on for about 25 minutes. Then after the game, he comes out again with about four different people to do stretches and a warm-down. I was standing with Kenny Dalglish and I said ‘Look at that, here he comes again. If there’s one way of telling a player he isn’t as fit as anybody else, this is it’. So, he’s had to fight these physical and mental barriers to meet his potential.

Towards the end of my time as Scotland manager, he came into the side and then we had a great system with him playing reasonably central. He was comfortable playing wide, and he was comfortable coming in centrally and running in beyond.

It really was a smashing time for him and for us, and then he had that wonderful spell when Brendan came in at Celtic. He’s been so important for them ever since, and it was really unfortunate that he suffered the injury this season.

What else he has got is that his work-rate for the team is phenomenal. He works back tirelessly and helps people, and maybe a lot of people don’t see that. If you’ve got an eye for the game, then you will just get him.

We should be trying to develop players who can play either side and as a striker, and he can do that. He understands where the space is. He knows where he can hurt a team.

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He’s brave as well. He has that Jimmy Johnstone thing where he gets kicked, but he just gets up and gets going again. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him shirk away from that side of the game.

James has an awful lot going for him, and there’s a right good few years left in him yet, so he will still have so much to offer Celtic in the longer term. In the shorter term, I can see him being such an asset for Scotland at the Euros, and I fully expect him to make the squad.