Could Stuart Armstrong be Scotland’s saviour?

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There was a time when the emotion state of a Scotland fan could be described as either euphoric or despondent with very little in between. Despite decades of failure to qualify for major tournaments, the spirits of the fans held up remarkably well, seemingly impervious to attempts by the team to find ever crueller ways of crushing our hopes. And then, with little warning, something peculiar happened, a new emotion crept into the middle ground: apathy.

Full houses at Hampden quickly became a thing of the past. The occasion of a Scotland game, which previously saw armies of fans mobilising from all corners of the country, was swiftly relegated to an after-thought: folk might switch over the telly if there was nothing else on but the idea of watching games in the pub, let alone Hampden, had completely lost its appeal. The reasons given for this alarming drop-off are as varied: exorbitant ticket prices, inconvenient kick off times, frustration over squad selections and simmering anti-SFA resentment over their handling of the Rangers liquidation saga are among the most commonly cited.

This alarming dissipation of the support was fully evident at the recent Slovenia match, where just over 20 thousand hardy souls found themselves scattered around the lifeless Hampden bowl. In a game which was still highly meaningful in terms of qualification for the next World Cup, this paltry figure should send shock waves through the governing body.

I am one of the lapsed thousands. In previous campaigns I’d have been in attendance at every home match without fail. Some of my best football memories have come from following Scotland but I watched the Slovenia game at home with a mix of reluctance and trepidation. I was only able to muster any enthusiasm because the alternative of a Countryfile/Antiques Road Show Double Bill was just too much to bear.

Despite my misgivings at the outset, by the end of the game something transformational had occurred – after a few years of total ambivalence I found myself caring again. Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.

While the late Scotland winner undoubtedly played a part in igniting my enthusiasm it was Stuart Armstrong’s contribution to proceedings which really made me sit up and take notice.

Apart from being a handsome Aberdonian bastard, Armstrong’s inclusion in the starting XI and subsequent Man of the Match performance offer genuine hope for the future of the national team. Armstrong’s showing in his first appearance for his country was one characterised by an elegance of movement and incisive passing which have been lacking for many years. The clever movement and through ball that setup the winning goal was typical of Armstrong’s contribution. If he is able to carry this form into the remaining qualifiers and beyond he is capable of becoming the talismanic figure Scotland have lacked for so long, the kind of player that elevates those around him and provides cohesion to a group which has looked lost in the past.

Armstrong’s credentials on the pitch are by no means the only reason for my renewed optimism.

Armstrong is only the fifth player to be given their competitive debut by Strachan while plying their trade in Scotland, but crucially he is the first to have made an immediate impact for the national team having been called-up solely on the basis of his domestic form. Despite a handful of solid if unspectacular appearances during Celtic’s Champions League campaign, Armstrong’s inclusion in the squad was as a direct result of his impact on Celtic’s retention of the Scottish Premiership title.

Armstrong’s demonstration that the less trodden path from SPFL star to International difference-maker is a viable one should mark a watershed moment in the thinking of Gordon Strachan. Strachan is a man who has previously gone on record to deride the quality of the Scottish league and insinuate he could only select players who have proven it at a “higher” level. Armstrong’s seamless transition should prove these barriers are an artificial construct of Strachan’s making and not a real impediment. There should no longer be an excuse for players performing consistently in the SPFL not to be afforded the same opportunity as Armstrong. The time for the likes of Graeme Shinnie, Jamie Walker, Liam Lyndsey & Kenny McLean to prove themselves should be now.

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The current squad would undoubtedly benefit from the fresh impetus which would come from the introduction this home-grown contingent. These guys would replace the crop of players who while plying their trade have never shone in a Scotland shirt – the likes of Matt Phillips, Matt Ritchie and Grant Hanley – and those who’ve been good servants to Scotland but are coming to the twilight of their careers like Darren Fletcher. A core of hungry, Scottish based players with a point to prove would have a transformative effect on a group that has too often looked insipid and lacking in spark.

The second, and possibly more controversial, benefit I can see from the introduction of these players is the transfusion of Scottish DNA into the squad. This won’t go down well with folks who don’t believe in outlandish concepts like national identity and patriotism but as far as I’m concerned, there is no way guys like Matt Philips and Liam Bridcutt who qualify to represent Scotland through the grandparent rule, can possibly feel the same affinity for pulling on the Dark Blue as guys brought up in Scotland. There will be those that argue these types of things don’t matter to a professional footballer, and at the elite level where players have an abundance of natural talent I’d fully agree. However, further down the pecking order where players are more limited the importance of motivation, a sense of togetherness, a cause to fight for – call it what you like – can’t be dismissed.

For example, if it was a straight choice between Liam Bridcutt and Graeme Shinnie, I’d go for Shinnie every time. Although it could be argued Bridcutt is a marginally better player, this gap would be easily bridged by the extra well of motivation Shinnie would be able to draw on. When the chips are down and a team is trying to eek out every last ounce of their limited talents, the extra couple of percent that comes from the sense of a shared connection with each other, the fans and the country at large could be the deciding factor.

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The introduction of these players would, I believe, have a hugely galvanising effect on the support. In a recent Twitter poll 30% of respondents cited squad selection as the main reason they’ve stopped attending games. It stands to reason that fans who watch SPFL football every week and see their players putting in consistently good performances are pissed off when the Scotland manager not only ignores them,  but points to the massively overrated English Championship as the only reliable benchmark for judging the merits of potential call-ups. The fans are sick to the back teeth of seeing “their” players being ignored in favour of unknowns whose Scottish credentials are tenuous at best.

I am certain that the imagination of the nation could be recaptured by the inclusion of players that the punters are emotionally invested in. We should be looking back in years to come and pointing at Armstrong’s performance against Slovenia as the moment that Scotland fell in love with their team again.

Your move Mr Strachan.