The brains of Saints' midfield on bringing the winning habit to St Mary's.
Stuart Armstrong does not conform to football stereotype.
The usual clichés need not apply. Whilst no doubt competitive to the core – you have to be, to win what he’s won – “fiery Scot” is less apt for the smiley, softly-spoken midfielder who was booked just once in 91 games for club and country before this month.
Armstrong is a believer in freedom of expression that transcends to his style on the pitch; at his best when driving forward with the ball and using his imagination to initiate attacks.
At Celtic, the fans would sing complimentarily about his hair; an impressively low-maintenance look that somehow never strays out of place.
The pink boots on his feet are daring, to say the least – you wonder if he would’ve got through an Old Firm game in one piece wearing those.
But Armstrong isn’t the flash footballer society could paint him to be. In fact, he was an A-grade student who took a degree in Law, in case football didn’t go to plan.
That’s impressive. There is something to be admired in the single mindedness of most aspiring footballers, such is their determination to make a living doing what they love, but Armstrong’s contingency plan underlines his level-headed nature.
“I finished it last summer,” he reveals. “It took five years, and it was something I started when I was 19.
“I wasn’t playing an awful lot, so I started it with a view to thinking ‘this is what I want to do when I finish playing’.
“It was an option that was there and something that interested me at the time. It’s a nice option to have, but we’ll have to wait to see if I actually pursue it.
“I’m very happy that I’ve done it. It’s something I can be proud of.”
Armstrong is keen to downplay his academic abilities and shy in discussing the degree.
It’s a line of conversation many journalists may have exploited in the past, but remains a story worth telling to his new legion of Saints fans.
With a degree of polite reluctance – pardon the pun – he elaborates on his education.
“I did an extra year at school, which is quite odd for a professional footballer, because normally we leave school at 16,” he says.
“At Christmas time, my family moved to the Dundee area from Aberdeen, so I started training with Dundee United during the week. They set that up for me, which was very nice.
“So when I was 16 going on to 17, I was still going to school (in Aberdeen) and playing for Inverness at the time. That’s a lot of travel!
“When Inverness got relegated at the end of the season, they scrapped their Under-19s team, but I was fortunate enough to get a contract with Dundee United.
“As luck would have it, it turned out to be quite a good route for me. I was there for six years.”
After cruising through his GCSEs, at this point Armstrong was studying ‘Highers’ – the Scottish equivalent of A-Levels.
“I studied English, Maths, Business Management, History and PE, so those were the five,” he recalls.
“When I did my Highers, I was taking the train back to Aberdeen for school, so a combination of that and playing for Inverness at the weekend meant my schoolwork suffered a little bit and I wasn’t too happy with what I got in the end. The ego took a hit!
“I was quite academic at the start, but as football took over I probably suffered a little.
“That’s reflected in the law as well. When I was at Dundee United the law was going really well, but when I moved to Celtic things became a bit more intense, and that took a back seat because it wasn’t a priority.
“But I did enjoy school. I’ve got some great memories there.”
stuart armstrongi was quite academic at the start, but as football took over i probably suffered a little.
When asked if he is naturally more analytical than his peers, Armstrong reveals a reassuring flaw to go with the intelligence, talent and chant-worthy hairdo.
“I’m quite guilty of overthinking some things,” he concedes.
“I think everyone’s different, with different jobs to focus on, but I used to overthink my own performance – things in the game.
“As I’ve got older and wiser, I tend not to indulge in overthinking and be a bit more forgiving.
“It’s always good to reflect on things you can improve and learn on, but overanalysing every single little thing is never good.”
If this is something Armstrong is beginning to overcome, you wonder if the tendency to self-evaluate resurfaced when he moved the length of Britain to join Saints, only to find himself struggling for game time.
“It feels completely different now to when I first came; not knowing anyone and being new to the club,” he accepts he took time to adjust – on and off the pitch.
“When I moved to Celtic, my family were still close and I still knew people around me.
“Although it was a move to a different city, I could still go home at a moment’s notice.
“Moving to the opposite end of the country was a big move in that sense, logistically, and at first it was a bit strange.
“I think when you have that option to go home more often, it takes a bit longer to adapt.
“When you don’t have that luxury and you’re forced into being where you are, it probably helps in the long run.
“I knew nobody, and I’d never been in that sort of environment before. I was isolated in that sense, but all the boys and all the people here are really nice.
“They made me feel at home – they’re very good at integrating you into a new life.”
As for the football, Armstrong performed well in pre-season, deservedly starting the opening game of the season against Burnley.
But it would take three months for the Scot to be handed a second Premier League start – a testing period that needed handling with maturity.
“It was frustrating at the start, wanting to be involved more,” he admits. “But I needed to be realistic. I was coming into a new environment with a completely different football style to what I was used to.
“I was used to dominating the league and controlling possession against every single team – that’s not the case in the Premier League.
“It’s such a fast game and things happen so quickly. It’s a physical league, so I had to allow myself time to adjust to that, make sure I was training well and when I did get a chance on the pitch I wanted to take it.
“Everyone wants to play and show what they can do, but you can never predict what would’ve happened if you’d played this game or that game – you can never tell that.
“I think I’ve improved as a player since I’ve been here, even in six months, and getting a new experience is great.”
Restored to the XI against Watford in November, Armstrong kept his place for the next game, at Fulham – the turning point in his fledgling Saints career.
“It was just about making an impression, making an impact and trying to bring things to the team in an attacking sense – creating things and trying to score a goal,” he thinks back to his mindset of six weeks ago.
“It was a good game to be involved in – a big, important game, with a lot on the line between two teams who were close in the table.
“It was nice that my brother and dad were there to watch and I really liked the stadium – nice and compact, old and traditional.
“We played some nice football and I’d come close to scoring in the Watford game before. I wanted to have more shots to score, so that was great on a personal note, but we lost the game, so that was disappointing.”
The defeat was painful, but Armstrong had put himself on the map with two goals – the second a Premier League Goal of the Month contender.
The following Saturday he was at it again, arrowing a similarly clean strike into the far corner of the Manchester United net as St Mary’s acclaimed a new star.
For many a Scot, Armstrong had already achieved the pinnacle in representing all-conquering Celtic. They taught him how to win and never to let standards dip.
But the 26-year-old always had eyes for England, from the days of visiting Elland Road at a child.
“I think everyone who knew me knew I wanted to play in the Premier League at some point – that was the dream,” he says.
Whilst the attraction of English football is undeniably global, plenty of players north of the border are turned off by moves to clubs less steeped in silverware than Celtic or Rangers. Armstrong thinks differently.
“I remember watching games when I was younger,” he continues. “I went to watch Leeds United a few times, as I had family who lived up there.
“This was the Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Alan Smith era. I was a big Alan Smith fan – he was the star of the show.
“That was always in my head and something I always wanted to do. I loved being at Celtic for those years and had some great experiences and memories there that I’ll never forget, but it was time for a new challenge.
“The Premier League was the ultimate dream for me, so to experience that now is a dream come true.
“I think everyone is different, with their own ambitions and preferences. You can’t speak for others.
“Celtic are a massive club who play European football every year – whether that’s in the Champions League or Europa League.
“I can understand why people would never want to leave and it was a hard decision for me to go, because I had good memories there and won things under a fantastic manager.
“It was just something for me that I wanted a difference experience and a different challenge. If I hadn’t taken it, I would’ve probably regretted it.”
Celtic are currently chasing an eighth straight SPL title and the 50th in the club’s history, so Armstrong would have known to expect a different culture in the Premier League, where every victory is one to savour and the disappointment of defeat a mere inevitably. Even Manchester City will vouch for that.
But the uncompromising outlook he developed in Glasgow can only benefit a Saints dressing room determined to taste the winning feeling more often.
“When I was at Dundee United, it wasn’t the end of the world if we lost a game,” Armstrong admits.
“Adjusting to life at Celtic was difficult in that sense – you lost a game and it was panic stations. Nobody liked it.
“You learn to be ruthless in that environment. We were unbeaten domestically for 69 games, which shows the mentality we had of winning and never giving up.
“Losing was unacceptable – that’s the way it was. We didn’t lose many games. European football was different of course, but we still had some good nights there.
“Everyone wants to be a winner and goes out on to the pitch wanting to win games. I think I speak for everyone in the changing room when I say no one likes losing.
“Coming to a different team, learning to adapt and playing a different style was obviously going to take a bit of time, but this is the Premier League and it’s a really different environment. That’s the way it should be.”
If Armstrong can maintain his current rate of progress, the Premier League will prove to be just another exam he passes with flying colours.