Stuart Armstrong: Scotland’s saviour?

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For decades the emotional state of your average Scotland fan could best be described as perennial despondency interspersed with a stubborn optimism that better times were just around the corner. Despite decades of ever crueler failure to qualify for a major tournament, the Tartan Army’s resolve held up remarkably well. And then, with little warning, a deadening apathy crept into the collective psyche.

The occasion of a Scotland match, once guaranteed to enthral football fans from every corner of the country, was swiftly relegated to an after-thought; folk might just about watch on the telly if there was nothing else on but the idea of making the trek to Hampden had completely lost its appeal. Exorbitant ticket prices, inconvenient kick-off times, frustration over squad selections, and simmering anti-SFA resentment over their handling of the Rangers liquidation saga were all cited as contributing factors but it was clear that, whatever the reasons, the fans had fallen out of love with their country.

The alarming malaise was fully evident at the Slovenia match – with just over 20 thousand hardy souls scattered around a less than half-full Hampden. For a game that was still highly meaningful in terms of qualification for the 2018 World Cup, this paltry turnout should send shock waves through the SFA.

I am one of the lapsed thousands. I’d have been at every home match without fail in previous campaigns. Some of my best football memories have come following Scotland but I reluctantly tuned into the Slovenia game on the TV more out of morbid curiosity than anything.

However, despite my misgivings, by full-time something transformational had occurred – after a period of total ambivalence, I found myself fully invested once again. Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in!

The late Scotland winner undoubtedly helped reignite my enthusiasm but it was Stuart Armstrong’s contribution that really made me sit up and take notice.

Apart from being a handsome Aberdonian bastard, Armstrong’s Man of the Match performance on his debut appearance offered genuine hope for the future of the national team. His ability to drift into space and play an incisive, defence-splitting pass aren’t qualities synonymous with Scotland teams of recent years. If Armstrong is able to carry this form into the remaining qualifiers and beyond, he’s capable of becoming the creative link between midfield and attack that Scotland have lacked for so long, the kind of talismanic figure that elevates the players around him and provides focus to a group that has too often looked lost in the past.

Armstrong’s credentials on the pitch aren’t the only reason for my renewed optimism.

To date, Gordon Strachan has only given five domestically based players their competitive debut but Armstrong’s standout performance must give the manager food for thought. Strachan has previously gone on record to deride the quality of the Scottish top flight and insinuated he’d only select players who’ve proven it at a ‘higher’ level, however, Armstrong’s inclusion in the squad came on the basis of his league, rather than European, form which has been patchy at best. Opportunities for the likes of Graeme Shinnie, Liam Lyndsey & Kenny McLean, who continue to shine on the domestic front should surely follow now that Armstrong has shown the way.

The current squad would undoubtedly benefit from the fresh impetus a home-grown contingent would bring. These ambitious youngsters could be drafted in to replace Anglo-journeymen like Matt Phillips, Matt Ritchie and Grant Hanley, who’ve never looked like they were fully invested in the cause. This won’t go down well with folks who don’t believe in outlandish concepts like national identity and patriotism, but there’s no way guys like Liam Bridcutt, who qualifies for Scotland through the grandparent rule, can possibly feel the same passion for pulling on the Dark Blue as players brought up in Scotland.

Ability trumps everything at the most elite level. However, further down the pecking order, where players are more limited, the importance of motivation and togetherness as a group comes into play. When the chips are down and players are eking out every last ounce of talent, an understanding of what it means to be Scottish at mitochondrial level can’t be dismissed – that sense of common purpose with teammates, fans and the country as a whole could be the deciding factor.

The introduction of these players would also 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 Scotland games. It stands to reason that fans who watch SPFL football every week want to see their top players rewarded with call-ups and their inclusion would naturally lead to a more emotionally invested fan base.

Hopefully, in years to come, we are able to look back on Armstrong’s stellar performance against Slovenia and say ‘Yes, that was the moment Scotland fell in love with their team again’.