Why move from left field was making of Stuart Armstrong

Celtic's Stuart Armstrong at training. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS
Celtic's Stuart Armstrong at training. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS
Share this article
0
Have your say

For such a clearly thoughtful individual, Stuart Armstrong can sometimes seem surprisingly unwilling to engage with the subject under discussion – particularly when the subject is himself.

Even at such a positive occasion as a PFA Scotland Player of the Year nominees announcement there was a suspicion he’d rather be anywhere else.

Armstrong is line to lift the award this weekend after a season in which he has blossomed to an extent that, on top of inspiring an all-conquering Celtic team, he has also become a full Scotland international.

Everyone knows the famous and by now slightly hackneyed anecdote relating to George Best. After delivering a magnum of champagne to the football legend’s room and finding him with a model on a hotel bed covered with banknotes, a bell boy asks: where did it all go wrong, George?

It’s the flip side of the coin when it comes to Armstrong: where did it all go right, Stuart?

Because this time last year many were wondering what the future held for Armstrong at Celtic. Although he made 39 appearances last season, the player was by no means a regular starter under Ronny Deila. Indeed, in the majority of these games he made cameo appearances off the bench.

Perhaps a clue for Armstrong’s unease when seated in front of Dictaphones can be found in his slightly arch response to an enquiry attempting to discover what accounts for his startling turnaround. A reporter admits that some observers in the press box last season were questioning whether he had what it takes to be a success at Celtic.

“I was aware of that,” noted the 25 year-old.

It is not as if Armstrong is hostile towards the media, just slightly guarded. He is clearly someone who prefers to do his talking on the pitch. No-one could claim he’s not been doing that recently.

Underlining his form is the fact that he’s been nominated ahead of Scott Brown, his midfield partner at Celtic and someone who, by all accounts, has enjoyed one of his best-ever seasons. It must be particularly satisfying for Armstrong to know the nomination comes from votes cast by his fellow professionals.

He is as surprised as anyone by Brown’s absence. “Since I’ve been at Celtic he has been terrific but this season he has been exceptional, an ever-present force for us in the middle of the park,” said Armstrong. “In every single game he’s influential. Sometimes his is the work that gets overlooked but he is so vital to our squad. His importance to us cannot be overstated.”

But Armstrong has made the most of his own opportunity under Brendan Rodgers, who has given him the chance to perform where he feels most productive – in the centre of midfield. Being played out of position while trying to establish himself at a club like Celtic was a principal reason for the player’s initial struggles.

“Obviously it was a fresh start and a new chance to impress,” Armstrong reflected. “Last season we had the whole playing-on-the-left hand side thing. I was being judged on being a left winger, which was slightly frustrating for me because I knew that was not my best position, and I could perform a lot better in the middle. I got my chance to play in the middle this season, and I’m glad I took it.”

Asked if he could put a finger on precisely when things started to click – the ‘where did it all go right?’ question – he agreed that coming on and scoring against Rangers in Celtic’s 5-1 victory in September was a turning point. But he’d already started several games under Rodgers by then. It was clear he was already earmarked to play a significant part under the new regime.

“That was important mainly for confidence,” he said of that second-half appearance in the first Old Firm fixture of the campaign, when he made such an impact. “It was my first goal of the season and to get it in a big game like that was a bonus.

“But once there was a clear picture that I wanted to play in midfield, and as soon as I got my opportunity, in training and in games, that is what I was working towards.

“It’s a lot to do with Brendan Rodgers and the way he works, and how everything revolves around that. I think you can all see for yourself how different it is.”

Armstrong’s current deal expires at the end of next season. Among the most pressing of concerns when it comes to the Parkhead club’s summer signing activities is securing the midfielder on a new, longer-term deal.

He has already been linked with a move to newly promoted English Premier League side Brighton & Hove Albion while Crystal Palace have also been credited with an interest. But it’s the definition of optimistic to try to get Armstrong to reveal details of what his future might hold other than a Scottish Cup final against Aberdeen at the end of this month.

“These things will usually sort themselves out,” he said. “It’s just nice for me to be able to focus on football and look forward to another final.”