Celtic’s 2-1 victory over Hearts on May 15th 2010 marked not only the final match of the 2009-10 season, but also Aiden McGeady’s final match for his boyhood club. It wasn’t yet known if the precocious talent – arguably Celtic’s best youth product since Paul McStay – would be staying or going. The caretaker manager at the time, Neil Lennon, had just clocked up 8 straight SPL wins – clawing back a modicum of respect following Tony Mowbray’s damaging reign; yet his future too, was uncertain.
Amidst all the excited tabloid gossip about the summer, a significant change went under the radar – McGeady was replaced on the 92nd minute by an 18 year-old James Forrest. Another home-grown youth graduate, it wasn’t until the following season, 2010-11, that Forrest really staked a claim for being ‘the next’ McGeady.
As one exciting Scottish winger’s career was on the ascendency, another’s, meanwhile, was heading in the opposite direction. Gary Mackay-Steven made headlines when snapped up from Ross County by English giants Liverpool, and almost by association became highly rated. However, thanks to a plague of injuries, by the time James Forrest was lighting up Celtic Park, Mackay-Steven had found himself at Airdrie – a club that barely survived relegation to the Second Division the season prior.
These timings make for a convenient base for comparison, albeit Mackay-Steven, as a January signing, was only available for 50% of Airdrie’s 2010-11 matches giving Forrest a sizeable head-start.
Stat vs Stat and injuries
The first place for logical comparison is via game-time and goals, and the severity of Forrest’s injury problems become clear. Despite the half-season advantage, he’s only managed (according to wikipedia) 6 more matches. After his breakthrough 2011-12 SFWA and PFA Young Player of the Year season, where he featured in a whopping 43 matches, the exertion took its toll and the niggles began.
His ailments have baffled medical staff, having suffered acute groin, hip, thigh and calf injuries, along with a more chronic problem with his sciatic nerve. The latter is probably the last thing a pacey winger wants, and the end-result has seen a gradual decline in acceleration over the past few seasons.
Mackay-Steven has had a cleaner bill of health during this time, with knee-surgery in 2012 taking down the “matches played” figure in that year, but otherwise has had a fine bill of health.
His problem, therefore, had been in sustaining his level of performance for Dundee Utd. Competition on the wings or behind the striker was severe, with the likes of Johnny Russell, Stuart Armstrong, David Goodwillie and Ryan Gauld amongst others, vying for a place.
Finally, the goals scored figures are quite interesting considering – it is fair to assume – that Mackay-Steven has worked with lesser quality team-mates and more difficult teams (i.e. matches against Celtic).
Both are burdened in height (they are both 5ft 9) with Mackay-Steven perhaps a couple of weight-divisions lower, something that influences managers (especially in Scotland) no matter what they claim. Aside from the defensive aspect, there’s the problem of dealing with Scotland’s ugliest, with both players being targeted for some pretty industrial treatment over the years, no doubt contributing to some rest days.
Despite the age, height and positional similarities, the two are at opposite ends of the “winger” style. Mackay-Steven is tricky and flamboyant, with this move at Kilmarnock being the most famous example. He beats defenders with technique and by using his intelligence to compensate for size.
Forrest on the other hand is an old-school “knock it past” winger, dependant hugely on explosive pace. Bringing us on to his recent decline. Of any player in Scotland, Forrest is the one who would suffer the most without pace. His technique and control has never been outstanding, and he doesn’t have either the brains or brawn to operate elsewhere. But – when he’s on his game, he is unplayable, and reminiscent of McGeady in the sense that any defender on earth would be ill at ease.
Both have operated just off the striker, and though seeming to suit the attributes of both, neither have appeared comfortable.
Much has been made of Ronny Deila’s new system, preferring inverted wingers who can score and create as opposed to old-fashioned by-line hitters. Then there’s the defensive aspect – the relentless pressing and physical demands that this youthful Celtic team have been asked to meet. Mackay-Steven’s enthusiasm and energy largely accounts for his seamless fit on the right wing.
It’s here that Forrest loses ground. His infamous fitness record doesn’t lend well with such a dynamic system, evidenced by his laboured performance against St Mirren at the weekend. If that electric pace doesn’t return, the future looks grim.
Hence, it appears easy to write Forrest off – just as easy to forget how devastatingly effective he was in 2011/12. Taking a leaf out of Kris Commons’ book, he was best cutting in from the right to become a goal-threat – not inverted as Deila may prefer, but serving the same purpose.
Though the similarities between the two are great, the differences are equally so. They are stylishly very different, while their rise and fall are inversely proportionate. We know what Forrest can do, it’s a question of whether he can do it again. Mackay-Steven has always flirted with greatness, and once hit rock-bottom – whether he can build on his current form and reach his undoubted potential, remains to be seen.
At their age it may be too late to replace McGeady, but it is possible to pick up where he left.