James Garner has sent Erik ten Hag and Manchester United a message they can not ignore – George Smith

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As the eyes of the world descended on Wembley for the richest game in football, James Garner made it his mission to leave his calling card.

The Manchester United loanee, after playing a key role to help Nottingham Forest move to within one game of ending their 23-year exile from the Premier League, ensured that he put on a show for the promotion-hungry Forest supporters in the stands and the United fans watching at home on TV. He had a direct hand in the only goal of the game that sealed Steve Cooper’s side’s return to the top-flight of English football, seeing his cross turned home by Huddersfield Town defender Levi Colwill.

Garner had gone close to claiming an assist earlier, producing a wonderful cross that was glanced just wide by the head of Ryan Yates. He was Forest’s architect-in-chief under the Wembley arch, ensuring he signed off from his loan spell on the banks of the Trent in style, putting a first promotion on his CV.

READ MORE: Must be involved! ‘ – Man United fans send clear James Garner message after Forest play-off win

But although his cross that led to the goal was the highlight of the final and his performance, he was always in control of proceedings in midfield, bossing the play, as highlighted by his 88 per cent passing accuracy rating and duel-winning tally of six . He also proved his weight in gold defensively, producing several well-timed challenges, including a vital one to rob Danny Ward of the ball, after he had breached the Forest backline.

It highlighted Garner’s all-round abilities and his growth into a modern-day central-midfielder. And he could not have picked a better stage to do it on, sending a timely reminder to Erik ten Hag that he has a new midfield option to consider at Old Trafford next season.

Although the step up from the Championship to the Premier League is a big one for any player to make – especially a youngster – it has been proven in recent years that it is not insurmountable, with the likes of Ben White, Reece James, Mason Mount and Jarrod Bowen, among others, having all adapted to Premier League life with relative ease.

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And based on what he produced against Huddersfield, Ten Hag, should he have been watching, will no doubt have been impressed with the Birkenhead-born midfielder, who made it his mission at Forest to put himself in the best position possible ahead of returning to United this summer.

“The whole idea is to show what you can do, get better and put yourself in the best position to go back to your parent club,” Garner said in an interview for the play-off final matchday program. “I do not know what that will consist of at the moment, but I feel I’ve given myself the best possible chance to go in and do my best.”



James Garner excelled for Nottingham Forest at Wembley.
James Garner excelled for Nottingham Forest at Wembley.

Do his best he most certainly did. He has been one of the best midfielders in the Championship this season and his performances only improved as the season went on.

Now, though, all eyes will be on what the future holds for him. Will he return to United and become part of Ten Hag’s revolution, which is expected to feature a big shake-up in midfield, or will Forest try and sign him on loan for a third time, putting forward an argument that they will offer him regular Premier League football, whereas opportunities might not be as forthcoming at Old Trafford?

Time will tell, with Ten Hag no doubt keen to catch a glimpse of the 21-year-old with his own eyes in pre-season. But whatever happens, Garner made the very most of his latest loan spell and brought the curtain down on it with a midfield masterclass inside one of football’s greatest cathedrals.

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