STUART Armstrong is no average footballer. Not on the pitch and certainly not off it.
Possessed with the kind of talent to take him much higher in the game, the Dundee United player was deemed well above average when he was named the Scottish Football Writers Young Player of the Year last season and shortlisted in the same category in the PFA Scotland awards by his peers.
Described as an intelligent player by his manager Jackie McNamara, whose squad is awash with youthful potential, the fact his is into the second year of an Open University law degree proves that not all his brains are in his feet.
And then there is the attitude. That’s far from average. He possesses none of the strut and swagger often seen in rising stars, who seem to believe they have reached their destination long before the ascent is complete. Preferring to hide away in the kit room to do the interview, he is wise enough to realise it offers some protection from his colleagues’ wise-cracks, and the fact he doesn’t want an audience points to the humility that shines through beside the professionalism and dedication.
He is also in no great rush to chase after the first big club that bats its eyelashes at him.
“He is possibly the only 21-year-old in the country who doesn’t have an agent,” enthuses his gaffer, who knows that Armstrong is just one of several gems in his ranks. “That’s unusual, especially for a guy who has been capped at under-21, but he is very level-headed and mature and I dealt with him and his dad over his contract and it was good because he really knows what he wants to do with his career and with his life, with the law and everything else, so it’s great to work with these lads.”
It’s not that agents haven’t pursued him. Like club scouts and most observers, they know the youngster’s worth and they know that is probably only going to rise in the coming years if his development continues. “For the time being I am happy just dealing with these things by myself and with my dad who I can trust,” he says.
His manager waxes lyrical about Armstrong’s reading of the game, the intelligence and pace of his runs, describing as the kind of player who glides along the turf, rather than struggles. If he was listening in, it’s the sort of chat that would probably make Armstrong blush slightly but there are no fake claims that the opinions of others fall on deaf ears.
He says: “Everyone seems to keep their feet on the ground. United keep on top of it well. They deal with it the right way and keep everyone focused on their football. It is always nice to get praised, but you have to take the good with the bad, and when at some point you don’t play particularly well you have to take that on the chin as well.”
Having enjoyed the kind of purple patch that had supporters and commentators salivating over the footballing fare on offer, and served up six wins on the bounce and only one league defeat after September, the form faltered after Christmas, with three defeats and a draw all they could carve out over the festive period. It means these United youngsters now need to prove they have the mettle to go with the mesmerising ability.
It is considered all part of the learning process by McNamara, who, having given Armstrong a contract extension in December that ties him to the club until 2016, admits he will have failed in his role as a manager and mentor if the prodigious talent is still at Tannadice by the time it comes to signing a new contract. He believes that, like so many of his players, Armstrong has the ability to move on to bigger and better things. He also believes it is his job to aid his development and help him learn from his experiences, good and bad.
The midfielder is in no rush to cut short that education. “Maybe my performances here have attracted interested from other clubs but for now I just want to keep playing here and see where it goes,” he said. “I’ve not thought about it in depth too much. I grew up watching the English Premier League and that’s where I always wanted to end up. But if the opportunity came around to play in the German league or somewhere like that then it would be hard to turn down because it is a very good quality of football.” But he is smart, he has seen football deliver a few slaps in the face before, seen others move prematurely and seen their progress stunted as a consequence. “It is a consideration but the most important thing right now is that people enjoy playing here,” he added.
It’s lovely to feel wanted, but that hasn’t always been the case. While schoolmates like Fraser Fyvie were courted from a young age by his hometown team, Aberdeen, Armstrong was offered trials but never signed and when he was taken on by Inverness Caledonian Thistle, it wasn’t the dream he had hoped for. “I played a few games for them at under-19 level, but to be fair my performances weren’t the best! Things didn’t really work out and I didn’t really enjoy it too much up there and I guess that showed in my performances but when I came here it all seemed to pan out for me and I started to enjoy it.”
This afternoon is another opportunity to remind Inverness what they passed up on. The last time the teams met there was a bad tempered melee and the tough challenges were an introduction to the kind of tactics more and more teams are employing in a bid to unsettle United’s young ball players.
It is something they are wising up to, knowing they will have to stand up if they are to get their season back on track. He would love to kickstart another run of wins today.
“There is always a factor that I would like to beat Inverness. It isn’t so much that you want to get one over on them, it is more just proving to myself that I can maintain my performance and play well in each game.”
The hurt of being released by them has long since been turned into a positive, though and it’s one of the main reasons for his patience.
“My progress had been gradual, playing for the boys clubs and then the step up to Aberdeen and I thought I would get signed and was very disappointed when I didn’t. Then at Inverness, I was really happy to be at a SPL side but it didn’t work out for me there either so, now I’m very grateful for what I have and that I am enjoying it so much and that I’m part of such a good side.”
Not as grateful as McNamara and the United fans are.