Even in spite of a season-altering loss to Bournemouth in their penultimate game of the campaign, a 1-0 loss at the hands of The Cherries giving the second spot to Scott Parker’s men, confidence is still oozing out of Nottingham Forest at this moment in time.
A recent 5-1 win over Swansea saw Steve Cooper’s men at their attacking best, Forest putting Steve Cooper’s former employers to the sword. James Garner played a crucial role centrally in this comprehensive win, assisting two of the goals for Sam Surridge to apply the finish – the former Stoke City striker proving a hit with the Forest faithful.
Garner is also proving to be a hit, a second loan spell with Nottingham Forest from Manchester United resulting in the 21-year-old being a crucial figure in the promotion bid at the City Ground this season.
The Red Devils youngster is an all-rounder in the middle of the park, unafraid to launch into a tackle and get dirty in a 50/50 whilst also being adept at scoring a long-range strike and showing off his skills on the ball.
Far from a one-trick pony, James Garner is firmly in contention to be Forest’s Player of the Season – an accolade that will have stern opposition, the likes of Brennan Johnson and Djed Spence other notable candidates.
After this season is up, it’ll be interesting to see if a new manager in Erik Ten Hag fancies giving Garner a chance at Old Trafford. A manager known for favouring young and exciting talent, he could well be in luck under the new Dutch head coach.
His reputation in the youth set-up at Manchester United as an exciting talent emerged from a very young age, signing for the Academy initially as an Under 8. He would excel at Under 18’s level thereafter, transitioning into a midfield role for the Red Devils after starting out as a centre-back.
You can still see his previous centre-back tendencies in his overall game today, a desire to tackle and bravely retrieve the ball a key component to Garner as a footballer.
The 2017-18 season saw him make 24 appearances for the U18 side, showcasing too his ability to score goals through the middle with four strikes to his name. He would even win the Jimmy Murphy Young Player Of The Year in the same season, an accolade previously won by Manchester United icons such as Paul Scholes.
All of this would culminate in Garner signing a professional contract for the Red Devils, a boyhood dream coming true. A few opportunities in the first-team would then prop up, substituted on for a last-minute cameo away at Crystal Palace in the 2018-19 season with Manchester United 3-1 to the good.
The Birkenhead-born youngster would even feature in European competitions for The Red Devils, playing against Partizan in the Europa League under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
However, as is customary for a youngster, loans away from their parent club are beneficial – loaned out to impress, fearing that fleeting opportunities might well stunt their progress in the long-term.
James Garner’s first loan would see him join Watford, the Hornets batting away a number of suitors for Garner’s services. An underwhelming loan eventually cut short, the typical change of manager at Vicarage Road saw Garner’s loan terminated in the wake of Xisco Munoz’s appointment, he would end up joining Nottingham Forest directly after.
He would endear himself immediately to the Forest fanbase with a goal against arch rivals Derby County, a behind closed doors event at Pride Park in COVID times but the Forest fans watching on from home would have been delighted with their loanee’s contribution.
Poor goalkeeping from David Marshall did help it into the net, but after striking it first time, Garner wouldn’t have cared – a hit and hope shot trickling in, his first ever senior goal for his new adopted club.
He would end up scoring three more times for Forest in his first loan stint, a healthy return after failing to make an impact for Watford. Garner would then sign on for another loan spell at The City Ground, eager to carry over his fruitful six-month spell into a sustained season for Forest.
Started off slowly this season, not helped by the disastrous start suffered by Nottingham Forest under Chris Hughton, everything has seemingly clicked into gear for Forest as a whole and specifically for James Garner under the tenure of Steve Cooper.
Losing just seven out of the 41 games in charge since taking over from the dire end of Chris Hughton at the City Ground, Steve Cooper completely reenergised a group beaten down by negative football and constant pessimism.
Now, Nottingham Forest are confirmed for the playoffs with James Garner an integral figure centrally. Utilised as a deep-lying playmaker under Cooper, Garner routinely soaks up the pressure by winning the ball back before springing a counter attack.
He would have to wait until December however for his first goal contributions of the season to come, scoring and assisting in a comfortable 2-0 win over Peterborough United.
His importance for Forest would begin to be felt around the business end of this season, notably in the last few months where he’s left his impression on games from the middle.
These last few months have seen Garner touted as a key player for Steve Cooper’s resurgent Forest, a man to rely on centrally with Nottingham Forest looking unbeatable at points.
He has formed a formidable partnership in the centre with the more attack-minded Ryan Yates, Phillip Zinckernagel further forward too and operating as another attacker with Brennan Johnson and the addition of Sam Surridge recently.
Garner’s task defensively is crucial therefore, a presence to help the three centre-backs with the other midfielders focused on getting further up the field. He does both jobs expertly, a well-rounded midfielder at just 21 years of age.
He would score his second goal of the season against Blackburn, directly after assisting in a loss away at Cardiff City. Bouncing back from that Bluebirds disappointment, an impressive 2-0 win at Ewood Park saw Steve Cooper’s men enter the top six on the night.
A composed finish from Garner would open the scoring, the Blackburn defender falling to the floor after some tricky feet from Forest’s number 37 before tucking the shot away calmly.
Two other goals would come Garner’s way, netting in routine 2-0 wins over Coventry and Bristol City at the City Ground with Steve Cooper’s men strolling to victories through confidence alone.
The recent 5-1 win over Swansea saw Garner at his undeniable best, an individual performance that will be tough to better for some time. A constant menace throughout for The Swans to deal with, his display alone managed to shake off the potential of any collective fatigue settling in after a long season for the Forest group.
A number of corners throughout the match saw Forest nearly score more than the resounding five on the day, no surprise to see that James Garner is only behind Sorba Thomas this season for chances created from set-pieces with 43 overall.
One corner would see a Sam Surridge header find the net, a real thorn in the side of Russell Martin’s men all afternoon. With eight chances created over the 90 minutes, alongside an impressive 95% pass accuracy over the course of the contest, James Garner’s performance in a dazzling team collective really stood out.
Manchester United fans, as a result, are asking the obvious question – should James Garner be given first team minutes next season? Could he be a reliable back-up in the top flight?
If this season is anything to go by, he could provide Manchester United with something fresh and energetic through the middle with other options feeling stale at this point in time.
James Garner will get an opportunity to impress, you’d expect, on the pre-season tour planned before next season kicks off – Erik Ten Hag able to see what Garner can offer in the flesh, a manager known for enhancing young talent at Ajax with the likes of Ryan Gravenberch excelling under the Dutch manager.
Before then, James Garner will have one thing on his mind – secure promotion for Nottingham Forest, immortalising himself as an even bigger hero to those with Forest connections.
By: Kelan Sarson / @SarsonKelan
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto