Stuart Armstrong is the latest in a long and ever increasing line of Celtic players to be linked with a big money move down south to the riches and glamour of the English Premiership; in his case the talented midfielder has been associated with a potential transfer to the likes of Southampton (which Celt hasn’t in recent years?), West Bromwich Albion, and Brighton for a fee in the region of around £10million. With just one year remaining on his contract and negotiations over a new deal having seemingly stalled, or at least been held up by his agent, might now be the time for Celtic to reluctantly cash in on one of their prized assets or should the club make one final bid to keep hold of a potential future club captain?
Armstrong arrived in Paradise from Dundee United in January 2015 along with fellow ex-Arab Gary Mackay-Steven for a fee of around £2million after being hailed as one of Scottish football’s most exciting prospects at the time. He confirmed this tag by scoring on his Celtic debut away to Partick Thistle in the Glasgow derby and turning in numerous high quality performances during the second half of the 2015/16 League Championship winning season. His most notable performance coming in his European debut at home against Inter Milan where he single handed dragged Celtic back from the dead, scoring once and forcing an own goal in the space of just two breathtaking minutes to level the game. Such was his level of performance over the two games against Inter that I was moved to ask “Is it too early to sign him up for life?” and prophesied that “With his dynamism, work rate and overall ability Armstrong will surely go on to become a fixture in the Celtic team for years to come.”
Indeed, over the course of the following two seasons Armstrong has amassed a total of 86 appearances in all competitions for Celtic and, despite coming through an unsettling period where he was consistently played out of position as the left sided attacking midfielder by Ronny Deila, has firmly established himself as a first team regular under Brendan Rodgers tutelage.
Armstrong’s strengths lie in his athleticism, tireless work rate, range of passing and tidy distribution, and his ability to be in the right place at the right time – whether it be breaking up an opposition attack or finishing off a Celtic attack, he has the knack of popping up where he needs to be. Add in his versatility and ability to play in a number of midfield roles – deep lying centre midfield, attacking midfield, box to box, even out on the left when necessary – and it is not hard to see why he has become a first pick at Celtic and, with any luck from now on, Scotland.
Last season was far and away the best of Stuart Armstrong’s career to date. He made a total of 47 appearances for Celtic (3,415 minutes if you’re interested in that kind of thing), scoring 17 goals and assisting in 7 more as part of Celtic’s InVIncible Treble Winning squad. He also marked the season with his Scotland debut against Slovenia, putting in a performance worthy of Scotland manager Gordon Strachan to hail it as “the best Scotland debut I have ever seen”. All this after only starting one of Celtic’s first 7 League games and playing only 107 minutes of football during those opening fixtures.
Unlike many who may have let the disappointment of not being in the team affect them, Armstrong knuckled down, worked on his game and made the improvements necessary oust Nir Bitton from the starting eleven and make the midfield spot alongside Scott Brown his own.
Over the course of the season Armstrong’s influence on the team undoubtedly grew to the point where he is now considered a leading light in the side, and his knack of scoring against Rangers has helped turn him into a fans favourite.
With the interest from England in his services Stuart Armstrong is now left with the following dilemma; stay at Celtic and earn around £20k per week (over £1million per year), win trophies, compete in European competitions, and potentially play a big part in making history by helping Celtic win 10 League titles in a row. Alternatively he could choose a move to the English Premiership, one of the highest profile leagues in world football, earn around £40-45k per week, and progress his career in a stronger League and bigger shop window.
The decision is not an easy one to make. For most reading this article our lifelong ambition is to play for Celtic and if we ever got that opportunity we would not want to give it up lightly. But for someone like Stuart Armstrong who is not a dyed in the wool Celtic fan, it becomes a very difficult choice; stick with what you know and the chance to become a club legend (if 10 in a row happens) or move on and test your abilities elsewhere. While money will undoubtedly be a motivator for him – as it would for every one of us if put in a similar position in our own careers – I don’t think that is the be all and end all for Armstrong. I believe that if he does opt to move on this summer then the decision will be based on what he thinks best suits his long term career objectives; the lad is good enough to play outside of Scotland and if he chooses to do so then so be it.
Should Armstrong decide to leave and head for the bright lights of the EPL then he will leave behind a creative hole in the Celtic midfield, perhaps one that Olivier Ntcham can fill? Perhaps Tom Rogic could sit a little deeper, or Nir Bitton or Callum McGregor could slot into defensive roles freeing Scott Brown up to roam a bit more. Maybe we’ll sign another central midfielder. Who knows? What is known is that Armstrong’s departure would be hard to take due to his importance to the team, it is a compliment to him that most, if not all Celtic fans would agree with me on that one. However, Brendan Rodger’s Celtic is bigger than the loss of one player, no matter how key he may be; his team will evolve and cope. Personally, I’d like Armstrong to still be part of that evolution but only time will tell.