Southampton's Scottish midfielder on adjusting to life south of the border and dealing with football's highs and lows...
By his own admission, 2019 was a year of ups and downs for Stuart Armstrong – not that the Scotsman would expect any different.
The previous calendar year had ended well for the midfielder. After a long wait to prove himself in the Premier League, he burst on to the scene with two goals at Fulham, then arrowed an unstoppable shot across David De Gea at St Mary’s a week later.
A combination of injuries, managerial changes and formation tweaks have seen Armstrong appear in a lot of squads without necessarily racking up the minutes he would hope for – for club and country.
But for Saints, he undoubtedly offers something a little bit different; creativity, speed of thought around the box, an eye for goal and an ability to strike the ball cleanly from distance.
It was rotten luck for the 27-year-old that injury struck again at the end of November, just as he had started Saints’ last four games. When the team won the next two in his absence, he was back on the bench when fit.
But Armstrong is an intelligent guy (he has a Law degree, but hates talking about it) who has learned to train his mind to deal with setbacks. He’d rather just get on with it – and always with a smile.
“It’s very rare that you glide through a year unscathed,” he reasons. “I think 2019 was a very good experience – a lot of good moments playing in the Premier League, completing my first season here and adjusting to life living away from friends and family.
“I think the biggest positive is that I’m adapting to the training and feeling a lot more comfortable in the team.
“I’m just beginning to express myself as a footballer and feeling more content away from football.”
Armstrong is a believer in a happy home life improving football performance, and reveals he initially struggled to settle in Southampton, having left his native Scotland for the first time in the summer of 2018.
Hailing from Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, previous moves to Dundee and Glasgow were less daunting than the south coast of England – but he can laugh about it now.
“When I first moved down I probably felt a little bit homesick, as people do when they completely remove themselves from what they’re used to,” he reflects.
“I’ve not moved to Mars, I’ve moved to Southampton! It’s still very much connected to home, but I always think when things are good away from the pitch, it helps you on the pitch.”
The key, he says, is remaining level-headed.
“When you’ve played for a number of years continuously, you get into the rhythm of never being too high, never being too low, and taking what you can from each game and moving forward,” he explains.
“There are still a lot of surprises in football. That’s why everyone loves it – there’s something new each week. There’s always talking points and controversy, that’s why it’s such an entertaining sport.
“Definitely with disappointments and highs, I’ve become accustomed to never being too indulgent in either, and always trying to remain balanced, whereas when I was younger I would be high one week and really down the next, depending on the result or the performance.
“Now that I’ve got a bit older, it’s better mentally to process the information and the results in a balanced way.
“I think I’ve said before that there have been times in my career when it hasn’t gone the way I wanted it to go – at my first club, Dundee United, and at Celtic as well.
“Because football moves so quickly, you can come off the bench and score and it’s a good feeling that puts you in a different light.
“But definitely starting games is better for rhythm, consistency and obviously happiness, because everyone wants to play and everyone wants to start, so when you don’t, there’s always that element of disappointment.
“I’ve accepted that sometimes there will be times when I want to play but I won’t. I just need to work harder to try and put myself in that position where I can play.”
Armstrong believes the same applies at international level. Since making his Scotland debut four days shy of his 25th birthday, in 2017, he has racked up 19 caps.
The Scots, two games away from qualifying for their first major tournament since the 1998 World Cup, are an improving force blessed with some exciting talent in the midfield positions.
Scott McTominay is maturing into a leader at Manchester United; Aston Villa’s John McGinn had ten goals for club and country by mid-November; John Fleck has been influential in Sheffield United’s extraordinary rise; Celtic’s Ryan Christie has been one of the best players in the Scottish Premiership this season – not to be sniffed at given the success of the Old Firm clubs in the Europa League.
Competition is fierce for Armstrong, but the European Championships – now scheduled for summer 2021 – represent an enormous opportunity. A home play-off semi-final against Israel beckons, before a trip to either Norway or Serbia if victorious.
Win both, and Scotland will qualify, hosting Czech Republic and Croatia at Hampden Park either side of a mouth-watering clash with England at Wembley.
stuart armstrongwe've seen countries of a similar size, like ireland and wales, really progress, and northern ireland too. they've been going into these major competitions and really doing well, so there's another added pressure on scotland.
But Armstrong knows not to get carried away. He flat-out refuses to discuss the prospect of facing England – there’s a play-off to win first.
“We’ve got a massive chance and everyone knows that,” he states.
“Everyone knows the prize at the end and that’s something the country has been desperate for for a long time now. Ultimately, it’s a huge chance to get to the Euros. To be so close is exciting for the country and a lot of people will be watching.
“I think because we had a lot of success pre-1998, going to World Cups and performing well, since then the team has underachieved and there’s a high expectation on the boys to perform and pull through.
“We’ve seen countries of a similar size, like Ireland and Wales, really progress, and Northern Ireland too.
“They’ve been going into these major competitions and really doing well, so there’s another added pressure on Scotland. People are asking, ‘why can’t we go to these big tournaments as well?’
“I think all the Scotland fans want to see their country at a major tournament, with how much happiness that would bring back to the country as a whole.
“It means everything really. I’ve got friends I grew up with who are dying for Scotland to get to a major tournament – I know how much it means to everybody involved.”
The Tartan Army’s prolonged absence from the biggest competitions is one of football’s more puzzling trends, but Armstrong is just one of many Scots now plying their trade in the Premier League.
Along with McTominay, McGinn and Fleck, add to the list Ryan Fraser, Oli McBurnie and Kenny McLean, while Arsenal paid £25million for Kieran Tierney and Andrew Robertson has has a Champions League winner’s medal.
Things are certainly moving in the right direction north of the border, and Armstrong is ready to embrace the expectation that comes with being the team to break the curse.
“You want to be part of the group that makes it happen,” he says.
“When I was growing up there were very good Scotland teams, very good players, but for some reason it hasn’t happened. I wouldn’t dwell on who’s responsible for getting us there, as long as someone is.
“Going back a number of years now, there was a number of Scottish players coming down to England and doing really well.
“But I think there’s been a lull in recent years – a clear absence of Scottish players, with the exception of Darren Fletcher at Manchester United.
“There was a time when the majority of the national team were Celtic players – I think nine or ten of the starting XI played for Celtic or had played for Celtic.
“Now we seem to be more and more present in the Premier League, and they’re all really great players. It’s great to see.”
Reason for optimism, then, but Armstrong knows not to expect an easy ride. Whilst 2020 started brightly, scoring against Leicester, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa – all in Saints victories – it’s very rare that you glide through a year unscathed, remember.
Again his personal momentum has been cut short, but his growing confidence and modest mindset will ensure he’s ready to kick on again when the quest for Premier League points and international glory finally resumes.