When the time comes for Manchester United to take stock and reflect on this season, it is almost certain that James Garner’s loan spell at Nottingham Forest will be considered one of the biggest success stories.
The central-midfielder, born a little under 40 miles away from Old Trafford along the M62 in Birkenhead, returned to the City Ground in the hope of gaining regular minutes, despite some United supporters suggesting that he was ready to be flung into the first- team fold at Old Trafford. He had spent the second half of the 2020/21 season on the banks of the Trent and had shown glimpses of his potential di lui.
Considering it was hard to gauge an accurate reading of most youngsters’ development last season because of matches being played in empty, lifeless bowls, his second loan spell at Forest promised to give a more accurate verdict. As the season now nears its conclusion, Forest’s supporters aren’t ready to let go and say farewell.
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The England Under-21 international has been nothing short of sublime, acclimatising to the cut and thrust of a ‘normal’ Championship campaign with ease. In a season that has seen Forest move from the foot of the table after seven games to being genuine promotion contenders with just a matter of weeks of the campaign remaining, Garner has been a revelation.
Under the trusted guidance of Forest manager Steve Cooper, who was appointed in mid-September following a nightmare start to the season under two-time Championship promotion winner Chris Hughton, Garner has flourished, becoming one of the most gifted and talked about central-midfielders in the league. He has looked a class above at times and it is quite understandable why Forest’s supporters are not prepared to say au revoir just yet.
But it is not just in the Championship where Garner, who has scored four goals and registered six assists in all competitions this term, has made a name for himself, in turn capturing the attention of United fans watching from afar. He was imperative in Forest’s run to the last-eight of the FA Cup, a run that saw them dispatch of record-holders Arsenal, hammer current holders Leicester City and go toe to toe with one of the best teams in Europe in Liverpool.
His performances against the three Premier League clubs have only increased the attention focused on the 21-year-old midfielder and a growing number of United supporters are desperate to see him become a familiar figure in the first-team fold at Old Trafford next season, regardless of who is in charge. Whilst the gulf in class between the Championship and Premier League is big, several names, such as Reece James, Mason Mount, Jarrod Bowen and Conor Gallagher, have shown that it is not an impossible gap to bridge.
And as Garner begins to set his sights on hoping to entertain the Old Trafford faithful, his performances this season have proven that former United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knew what was best for him. Ahead of sealing his second switch to Forest last August, Solskjaer outlined why another season playing in the Championship, following spells at Forest and Watford last term, would serve him well.
“I would definitely think Jimmy will go on loan,” said Solskjaer. “That’s more or less done.
“He’s done really well in pre-season and he’s really impressed me, and I think for his career, another season, or another six months now to start with, playing regularly in the Championship will help him.”
Solskjaer was not wrong, was he? Garner has benefited enormously from spending another season in the Championship, particularly in a ‘normal’ season where the supporters are the lifeblood of the division’s culture.
Furthermore, Garner has also benefited from working with Cooper again, following their time together on the international stage with England’s Under-17s several years ago. Cooper, widely regarded as the best manager in the Championship, has developed no shortage of loanees in just under three years in club management, including Marc Guehi of Crystal Palace, former Liverpool youngster Rhian Brewster and Gallagher, all of whom he had during his time at Swansea City.
Although it is important not to apply too much pressure to Garner’s young shoulders, he has flourished at Forest this season, proving that Solskjaer was right to make the statement that he did with so much confidence. The Championship, certainly nowadays, is often the breeding ground for the next generation of Premier League talent and Garner is close to being the latest player to be rolled off of the division’s production line.
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