As delighted as anyone at Celtic would have been to see Stuart Armstrong yesterday land the latest Ladbrokes Player of the Month award, the real delight for the powers that be at the club would be to land the midfielder on a new contract.
In itself that is a testament to how the 25-year-old’s career has taken off in the past six months. Last summer, Armstrong was considered a leftover from the Ronny Deila era that Brendan Rodgers would dispose of. Instead, the Irishman has made him one of his central performers in every way – the player blossoming in the middle of an attacking three to such an extent that in helping Scotland beat Sloveniaa fortinght ago he delivered with what national manager Gordon Strachan called the best debut at that level he had ever seen.
A serious, would-be cerebral individual, his new-found status as a man that has many admirers could even allow him to chuckle. For the other week, actor-comedian and chat show host James Corden tweeted a picture of Armstrong and declared that this was the player he wanted his beloved West Ham to sign above all others.
“Someone sent me it,” he said. “It’s just something you have got to laugh at, a bit of humour. It’s always nice to see these things. There was a little bit of humour from the boys about it.”
Armstrong doesn’t do outright jocularity in press calls but appears to amuse himself with the verbal cat and mouse about issues such as his contract or long-term intentions.
Negotiations seem to have gone nowhere in particular across recent months over extending his stay on improved terms despite his current deal expiring only next summer.
“We are looking at it. I am really happy here and playing some of the best football of my life. I’m in a really good place. I’m sure it will take care of itself,” he added.
The attractions of England, and three times the salary he could ever command at Celtic, he doesn’t “dwell” on. Armstrong says he is “living for the moment [and] the future will take care of itself”.
“I love playing week in, week out in my favourite position for a club like Celtic – and playing under Brendan Rodgers (pictured) as well. I couldn’t be happier. I think what the manager is building here is a real, good quality team. You have seen the step up we have made in only his first season.
“I think that can only get better. We’ll be pushing to get Champions League again but this time I think we’ll be looking to get further. I think things are only going up.
“That was one of the attractions of coming to Celtic, the European experiences. Playing in the Champions League this season was a dream come true, playing against the giants of Europe [in Barcelona and Manchester City]. The prospect of playing in that again is amazing. Every player looks forward to it because it is very special.”
Yet for all the wonders of the present, the past hasn’t dissolved entirely in the recesses of Armstrong’s mind. Rodgers revived a Celtic stay that looked to have been going nowhere as Deila determined that Armstrong’s best position was on the left of the forward three operating behind a single striker.
“I don’t know what he thought and where he saw me best, probably on the left wing,” said Armstrong. “I couldn’t tell you what his thoughts would be on me playing central midfield.You never know, I could have played central midfield last season and been shit. Last season was frustrating because I knew I could play better in the middle.
“But I was part of the team and I’m a team player so I wasn’t for causing trouble. I think football is a big part of my life and I think about it and analyse it and when it’s not going so well then it’s hard to switch off and relax. I’m a lot nicer to be around these days.”
For a turning point on the field, Armstrong can look back to his first goal of the season which came in the 5-1 victory over Rangers in September. “A big thing” after he was given “the opportunity to perform” in a “central position”, “I like to think I made a difference in that game. Another big performance was in the semi-final against Rangers when we won 1-0 and I felt I contributed well. From then it just built and built.”
Before that, though, he needed the turning point of a conversation with Rodgers in which he dealt with the issue of his favoured position. “That was a weight off my shoulders. I hoped he wouldn’t judge me on what he’d seen. It was more about me in training. The words were clear and the picture was clear [about what I needed to do to play]. That was a relief in a sense.”
It was his earliest indication of a Rodgers revolution. One that has taken Celtic to within two games of a treble, a Scottish Cup semi-final a fortnight away for the champions and League Cup winners after an unbeaten domestic season.
“I think you can see the difference on the pitch, the difference he’s made not just with me but with other players and the whole team. So the difference is quite vast. For me personally he’s been great and he has developed my game in a number of aspects and he’s been very clear what he wanted for me and I’ve tried to deliver that for me and for the team. He’s had a fantastic impact on me as an individual.”