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Following Nottingham Forest’s play-off final victory over Huddersfield Town on Sunday, there’s only one question on the lips of most Manchester United fans: what does it mean for our on-loan midfielder James Garner?
The 21-year-old has been a mainstay of Forest’s remarkable rise to promotion glory, delivering four goals and eight assists in the Championship, and even setting up the East Midlanders’ winner at Wembley.
But what comes next? With the City Ground club returning to the top flight for the first time in 23 years, could his loan stay with Steve Cooper’s squad be extended? Or might Erik ten Hag see Garner as part of his new-look United side?
We caught up with The i’s Chief Football Writer, Daniel Storey, to get a little bit more insight on the subject. A keen Forest fan, Storey described Sunday as “probably the best day of my life”, and has closely watched Jimmy throughout the season.
Play-off finals are renowned for their intensity and the pressure put on players. So the first question has to be: how did James perform in the match at the weekend?
“Well, the first thing to say is it wasn’t a good final! Defences were dominating and Scott McKenna, one of Forest’s centre-backs, got Man of the Match, and the other two either side of him could have got it, frankly. But I think Jimmy was probably Forest’s best attacking player. He has this composure on the ball which suits big games, but he also has this tigerish element to his game.
“All season, he’s been been playing in the midfield two alongside Ryan Yates, who’s pretty much a protector for the defence, whereas Garner’s clearly got licence to move forward a bit. But he couldn’t play that role if he didn’t have that tigerish element to the game; this kind of energy.
“There was twice in the second half where Forest were under pressure and he won the ball back in midfield, and he doesn’t panic when he gets the ball. Sometimes he tries to play the pass a little bit too quickly, but generally he’s really smart on the ball. Forest needed that yesterday, because there weren’t many in the second half that were able to take their time with the ball and not panic.”
Has Garner been an important player throughout the season? He’s not played too much senior football in his career, so you might expect a youngster to be a bit up and down, and relying on the more mature pros around him…
“For the first seven games of the season, Forest performed poorly. There were times when every player looked a little bit… not broken, but just a bit unsure of what was going on, what the plan was, what they were meant to do. There’s two things with young loan players: the first is that they’re desperate for minutes. He’s got those. He’s started nearly every game for which he’s been available. The second is that they need a structure around them. It almost feels like the structure and the manager has helped the loan players through. You can’t rely on other senior players to do that, because Championship level is frantic. There’s so much going on that you don’t really have time to do that. It’s sink or swim.
“Since Steve Cooper’s come in, we know his record with young players, with the England Under-17s and players with the profile now that Jimmy probably hopes to have in the future. He’s flourished. He’s taken that responsibility on board. He’s not always been consistent, but then that’s young players for you. You don’t get loan players and expect them to be brilliant in every moment of every game. But he’s certainly grown this season. I don’t want to speak for him, but I know that he and other young players in that team, they can’t thank Steve Cooper enough. He seems to have this ability to take the pressure away from the players and onto himself, and allow them to go out and do their thing. Jimmy Garner is a player who, when he’s allowed to do his thing, was one of the best central midfielders in the Championship.”
Structure is an interesting word, given United are about to embark on a new style of play under Erik ten Hag. Could you see James fitting into our team next season, or would a Premier League loan suit him better?
“The first thing to say is: Ten Hag would clearly be foolish, and United would be foolish, to let him go without having a look at him in pre-season. Clearly, the [transfer] window goes until the end of August, and the season starts earlier than usual this year. So there’s a long pre-season for them to have a look at it.
“There comes a huge amount of pressure with a new manager, and so you tend to make slightly more risk-averse decisions on team selection. He’s played a lot of football this season and it’s made him as a player. I don’t think it’s hugely helpful for him to be sitting here in a year’s time and he’s had 180-200 Premier League minutes in a season. He’s not 18 anymore. He’s of an age where he needs to be playing football every week. He’s 21, he’ll be 22 by the end of next season, so he needs to be playing.
“I’m probably incredibly biased when I say a Premier League loan would be brilliant for him next season. A year-long loan. Probably with no option to buy, because if he grows again he could be a player for United. With Forest getting promoted yesterday, under Cooper, they feel a really attractive choice for young players. For too long Forest was a club where we had Aaron Ramsey on loan, for example, and he barely played. It feels a club now where players go and think they’ll be looked at. And more importantly, the clubs they are leaving from are sure they’ll be looked after under Cooper. If he is to go anywhere on loan, it makes complete sense that it’s Forest.
“But I think it would be foolish if Ten Hag doesn’t at least have a look at him, if only because he [Ten Hag] is backing himself to be there in three years’ time. Therefore he might say to Garner: go away and have a season, enjoy yourself again, get better again, play football again, and let’s see where we are in a year’s time. Because you might well be a part of the future of this club.”
From your answer, it seems a given that Forest would like to have him back for another season?
“Yeah. I think the big flaw in Forest before this season was that they had a big turnover of players. They signed 13-14 players every season, and you didn’t really know what the starting XI or even the matchday squad was going to be from one to the next. If you learn anything from this season it’s to try and keep the core of that team together. There’s four loan players there, of which Garner is one, then there’s [Philip] Zinckernagel and [Djed] Spence and Keinan Davis, and I think they’ll be looking to try and make permanent or extend the loans of as many as possible. Because there’s clearly a really good core group.
“I think Spence is the flagship individual, because he’s been incredibly exciting this season, and he plays in a style that gets headlines. And England have plenty of good right-backs, so he fits that mould. But Garner is second in that list, without a doubt, because he’s grown up this season so much. He comes across as an incredibly shy lad, an incredibly humble guy. I think occasionally there’s a suspicion with players who come from big-six clubs to the Championship, that they might have an idea that they’re a bit too good to be there. Or that they have ideas above the club they’re stationed at. That they see them as a stepping stone. We’ve never had a sense of that with Jimmy at all. He always looks like he wants to be there because he understands that this is a really crucial part of his development.
“The final thing to say on that is that the Championship is a pretty relentless place in central midfield. You don’t get much time on the ball. There’s an argument that Garner – more than every other Forest player – that playing in the Premier League might suit him more, even than playing in the Championship, because you might get a little bit more time on the ball. You might get a little bit more time to pick a pass.
“But it feels like it’s win-win for him now. He either backs himself to do something at Manchester United, or he becomes a Premier League player next season if he wants to extend that loan. From where he was six or seven months ago, he’s probably pinching himself this morning.”