It’s nothing new to describe Stuart Armstrong as unlike many footballers. But he has added a refreshing dose of reality to the frenetic Old Firm countdown by issuing a reminder not everyone grew up in thrall to the fixture.
He has, however, acknowledged its importance now he is a Celtic player, particularly one with still something to prove.
The midfielder signed from Dundee United the day after last year’s Scottish Cup semi-final between the clubs, so wasn’t in the stand – or even watching on television – on that occasion. Having played the day earlier for United in their 2-1 semi-final win over Aberdeen he and his girlfriend opted for a weekend break in Newcastle instead, as he prepared to put pen to paper with Celtic.
“I didn’t watch it and I have never experienced an Old Firm game,” he said. “Over the years, I might have seen it in glimpses, but I’ve never fully appreciated the event.
“Is it a new thing for me? That’s probably fair to say. Obviously, when you are in the Central Belt, it’s a massive event and the talk about this game since the draw has been huge. But when you live up north, perhaps you don’t appreciate how big it is.”
Armstrong grew up in Aberdeen, attending Hazlehead academy in the city. He joined Inverness Caledonian Thistle as a youth player before signing for United. An Aberdeen fan as a boy, there’s little reason why he should have measured out his life in Old Firm fixtures. Nevertheless, for a footballer, it is unusual if he has never sat and watched one before, as claimed.
But he stressed he has not seen a whole game, only “glimpses” on the television. Not that there have been many in recent years of course; Sunday’s is only the second since April 2012. Celtic manager Ronny Deila suggested earlier this week that the game dominates the entire country. But that’s clearly not true.
This isn’t to say Armstrong isn’t keen to find out more about the clash, preferably from the start of Sunday’s game. He has been a peripheral figure of late for Celtic. This weekend would be the perfect time to re-establish his credentials after a stop-start first 14 months in his Celtic career. He hasn’t started a match since the 0-0 draw with Dundee at the start of last month. But there is a school of thought he could be someone Deila might turn to in order to help counteract Rangers’ quick breaking tactics on the flanks.
“This season has been tough at times, but I now feel more accustomed to the way of life at Celtic, with the amount of games, the amount of pressure to win and win well,” said Armstrong. “It’s been a good year of learning.” Sunday is set to prove another education, his first taste of an Old Firm clash. “I wouldn’t say I go out of my way to avoid the build-up or seek it out,” he said. “You hear things in advertising or on TV, you see little clips of previous games and what it means to the fans as well, so I’m under no illusions of how big it is.
“It is completely different to a European fixture or another derby,” he added. “Having said that, I haven’t experienced it so I don’t really know how it feels to play in or be involved in it. But I am looking forward to seeing what it is all about.”
While he is green when it comes to Old Firm fixtures, he has proved a talismanic derby figure in the past. In seven matches against Dundee for United, including a so-called friendly in the summer of 2012, he did not feature on the losing side, scoring once.
“We had a great record against Dundee home and away,” he said. “So that was good for Dundee United and it was a good feeling to have, getting one up on your rivals. If we could do that again on Sunday it would be good.
“I think it means a lot more to everyone these derby games. If you get the better of your rival it means that bit extra than a normal league game.” Asked if such fixtures bring out the best in him, he said: “You could draw that conclusion, yes.”
He also has good memories of games against Rangers for United, particularly another Scottish Cup semi-final two years ago, when he scored in a 3-0 win at Ibrox. Rangers have improved since then, although Armstrong, clearly not an avid viewer of football on television, wouldn’t know. He can’t recall watching them this season.
“I don’t know what their expectations are,” he said. “Our concerns are not what their expectations are. We focus on us. Our aim is to get to the final of the Scottish Cup.”