Drubbing at hands of Brendan Rodgers was the turning point for Stuart Armstrong

Stuart Armstrong is back in the Scotland squad. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
Stuart Armstrong is back in the Scotland squad. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
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It would be fascinating to know what was going through Stuart Armstrong’s mind when Ralph Hassenhuttl told him to get warmed up and play his part in the most humiliating night in Southampton’s history.

Unfortunately, Armstrong is still in no mood to share his recollections of the club record 9-0 defeat at home to Leicester City three weeks ago.

“I’d rather not,” is the response of the Scotland midfielder, his habitually clipped tones when facing the media even more brusque than 
usual.

“You could say all sorts of things about it but sometimes it’s important as a player, when you get beat, to learn from it,” he adds.

Southampton were already trailing 7-0 when Armstrong was sent on with 20 minutes remaining, so there was perhaps some scant consolation in helping his team – down to ten men since the 12th minute when Ryan Bertrand was sent off – restrict Brendan Rodgers’ rampant Leicester side to just two more goals.

If Rodgers was the architect of a torturous experience for Armstrong on this occasion, he has reason to be grateful to his former manager at Celtic whose role in his development helped him earn his £7 million to the English Premier League in the summer of 2018.

But if there were any words of solace or encouragement from Rodgers in the aftermath of the drubbing at the St Mary’s Stadium, Armstrong is again reluctant to discuss them.

“No, not overly,” he says. “Different things were happening during the game and after the game, so it was a busy time.”

The crushing defeat has at least proved to be a personal turning point in Armstrong’s season. He had only featured as a substitute up to and including that point but has started all three of Southampton’s matches since, although they remain second bottom of the Premier League.

“It’s been an interesting journey for me so far, not always smooth,” says the 27-year-old. “It’s been up and down, as it always has in my career. When I was at Dundee United and Celtic, there were always ebbs and flows which is how football works.

“But the Premier League is an incredible league and I’m really enjoying it.

“It’s a little bit of a different mentality. At Celtic, it was always more dominant, you have a lot more possession. Your aim there is to win the league and the cups.

“In the Premier League, your ambition is to finish as high as possible. Last season at Southampton, we found ourselves not where we wanted to be but came through it and had a strong finish.

“So it’s different challenges and different mentality. It’s about adapting to that. The Premier League is a very challenging league but a great experience. Every week you come up against different qualities, fantastic players. For me personally, it’s been a great experience and I’m really enjoying it. Everyone always wants to play games, so to have the opportunity to do that is ultimately why you play football, to make the most of the time on the pitch when you get it.

“It’s a different experience, a different challenge. When you go to a different environment, you learn different things about how that works and how you fit into it, what you can improve upon.”

Armstrong’s struggle to force his way into the Southampton starting line-up earlier this season saw him initially left out of the Scotland squad named by manager Steve Clarke for the matches against Russia and San 
Marino last month.

He was eventually called up as a late replacement for injury withdrawals, making substitute appearances in both games and scoring in the 6-0 Hampden win over Euro 2020 Group I whipping boys San Marino.

Armstrong, back in the fold for the games against Cyprus tomorrow and Kazakhstan next Tuesday, had no complaint at Clarke’s original decision to leave him out last time around and insists it did not dampen his enthusiasm for international football.

“I don’t think I would ever turn down the opportunity to come away with Scotland,” he said. “Playing for your country is probably the best thing in football for me.

“It’s a different feeling from club football. Club football is terrific but playing for Scotland is always a special thing for me.

“It was difficult not being named in the squad initially the last time but I had a good chat with the manager and completely understood the things we talked about.

“The Scotland squad should always be picked on form and sometimes when you are not playing as regularly as you want to for your club, you can’t really argue.

“But I was delighted to get the call to come back into the squad. I love being here. It was really nice of the gaffer to explain to me beforehand why I wasn’t in that squad. I could have just found out when he named it. We had a good chat and I completely agreed with everything he said.

“It’s a great positive to have that relationship with the manager. All the players will be the same. He’s just open with us. We are all human beings and can all be spoken to as adults. It’s a great thing to be able to speak one-on-one truthfully.”

Armstrong feels Scotland cannot afford to let their minds stray to the Euro 
2020 play-offs next March, stressing that the priority is to finish off a generally miserable Group I campaign on a brighter note.

“We have two big games in March but we’re not thinking about that right now,” he added. “It’s about building on that San Marino performance and making sure these next two games against Cyprus and Kazakhstan are positive, that we get points from them and finish as high in the group as possible.

“Everyone thrives on good performances and winning games. That attracts positivity among supporters, so it’s up to us as a group to build on the San Marino game and offer the fans good performances 
and wins.

“Winning always helps in giving you that good feeling again of scoring goals, as we did against San Marino. If we can build on that confidence in our next two games, that’s ultimately our aim.”