Odsonne Edouard’s record signing for Celtic is undoubtedly a landmark moment in Brendan Rodgers’ tenure…
There has always been a rather apparent sensibility to Stuart Armstrong. While plenty of Scottish players work their way through the youth system mirroring boys their age across the wider society, Armstrong has always stood out like a sore thumb.
After breaking onto the scene at Dundee United, the Inverness-born talent once admitted that he had decided to enrol in law at the Open University to “stave off boredom” in between training sessions and match days. One year before he would make a sudden move to Celtic, in the dying moments of the 2015 January transfer window, the attacking midfielder openly talked about his admiration to one day play abroad.
While the ambition of most young Scots in the game rarely extends beyond the riches in England, Armstrong pointed out that moving abroad and learning to adapt to new cultures and different styles of play is often what makes a good footballer great. For this emerging talent, it was all about adding another string to his bow and calmly progressing as a player. He spoke of his admiration for how professional the German top flight seemed to him, while Ryan Gauld dreamed of playing for Real Madrid and Andy Robertson hoped to one day play for Celtic.
Yet a move to the Glasgow giants beckoned for Armstrong and his close friend Gary Mackay-Steven and before he knew it he was making his home debut in front of 58,000 fans in a Europa League knockout tie against Inter Milan. The Italian side went two goals up on the night before Armstrong rose to the occasion and pulled one back for Celtic in the 24th minute. Ronny Deila’s side would go on to draw the game 3-3 before losing the tie, yet the kid with the fluffy blonde locks had immediately endeared himself to the club’s faithful support.
Armstrong was an instant starter for Celtic on the left wing – a position he had played for United enough to justify it but was by no means his best – for the remainder of the 2014/15 season, but after initially sticking with him throughout the first half of the following campaign, Deila began turning to more conventional wingers like Mackay-Steven, James Forrest and Patrick Roberts. With four goals and eight assists in 39 games, the 24-year-old had done well enough but was by no means thriving under the Norwegian coach.
As would come to be a running theme with a number of his teammates, Armstrong only found his top gear at Celtic once Brendan Rodgers walked in the front door. The Northern Irish coach immediately identified Armstrong as a No.8 or No.10 through the middle of the pitch and throughout the 2016/17 season, the Scottish international only started three games on the left wing. The upturn in form was miraculous and those four goals and eight assists from the previous campaign quickly turned into 17 goals and seven assists.
While the 18 months under Deila were by no means a stagnation of Armstrong’s development, his first season under Rodgers was clearly what turned the midfielder into a bonafide fan favourite and a potential star for club and country. In 2014 the player had been asked about his new-found fame after helping United to a League Cup final and he bashfully stated: “It’s nice when fans recognise that you’ve played well in a game, but I’m not David Beckham.” Now close to 60,000 fans were singing about his haircut each and every weekend.
However, the good times didn’t roll on. And after just one season under Rodgers’ enabling stewardship the transfer rumours began to grow in size and regularity. Armstrong’s best ever season also coincided with him entering the final year of his contract at Celtic and reports claimed that Southampton manager Mauricio Pellegrino was willing to part with £10 million to bring the Scottish midfielder to the south coast.
And why wouldn’t he move? The kid from Inverness was now the king of Glasgow and where a more brazen, emotional player like Scott Brown would let that go to their head Armstrong never really seemed all that interested in the hype. Celtic was just another test for the ambitious player and after proving his worth to the biggest club in the country, whilst emerging as a regular Scotland international, Armstrong seemed ready for the next test.
Southampton may not have been the Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich Armstrong had once dreamt of but they would surely provide a constructive platform as they had so successfully done for former Celtic players like Virgil Van Dijk, Fraser Forster and Victor Wanyama. Unlike a risky move to the Championship, the south-coast club were always the logical, sensible next step.
Following the initial rumours of a potential move, the Daily Record reported that Armstrong and the club had made an agreement based on the conditions that the midfielder would sign a contract extension but would be allowed to leave in the summer of 2018 if a good enough deal came in. Although the club never confirmed the story, Armstrong then duly signed a new contract with the Scottish champions to keep him in Glasgow until 2019.
As we now know, that report proved to either be entirely spot on or dangerously fortunate with its prediction. The move itself is perhaps enough proof for some, but the manner in which Rodgers used Armstrong as sparingly as possible over the course of the last season in favour of Callum McGregor and Tom Rogic also suggests he was well aware of what was peeking over the horizon. Some clever team management from the Celtic manager now means the champions have just sold a former fan favourite and across Glasgow most fans have reacted to the news with a shrug of the shoulder and an acknowledgement that £7 million is a good amount of money considering the circumstances.
Indeed, Celtic probably moved on from Armstrong the moment he signed his new contract last August. And in doing so there isn’t a huge amount of animosity attached to his move to the Premier League. Pragmatic fans of the Glasgow club have long since accepted that top players who walk through the door at Parkhead will most likely leave one day too with a large ka-ching sound confirming and ultimately softening their departure.
Armstrong only had one, truly great season at Celtic but that was enough for him to decide he was ready for the next step. Adapting, learning and progressing seems to be the primary driver of his playing career. And at Southampton he’ll find the next test. For Scotland’s sake, there’s every hope that he’ll quickly thrive as he did in Dundee and then in the east end of Glasgow not so long ago.