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'We want to try and build something, not dismantle it'

COMPARISONS between this young Dundee United side and some of their illustrious predecessors do not begin and end with their entertaining, attacking brand of football that has even neutrals purring about their potential.

Stuart Armstong has joined several of his Dundee United team-mates in signing extended  deals
Stuart Armstong has joined several of his Dundee United team-mates in signing extended deals

There is something familiar about their terms of employment as well.

The joke that did the rounds during Jim McLean's time in charge was that a player would require the assistance of a Philadelphia lawyer should he wish to extricate himself from the lengthy contracts that the then Tannadice manager would have them sign to ensure the best talent did not stray from Tayside.

Jackie McNamara is taking a leaf out of that book. The current United manager, aided by chairman Stephen Thompson, has been busy in recent months getting as many of his young stars tied up for as long as possible to either dissuade those clubs monitoring their progress or, more realistically, to ensure United get the best price when the time comes for the players to move on.

Yesterday it was the turn of Stuart Armstrong to extend his stay for a further year, the 21 year-old midfielder following Ryan Gauld, John Souttar, Andrew Robertson and Nadir Ciftci by committing his future until the summer of 2016. Gary Mackay-Steven is next in McNamara's sights, with talks already underway with a view to persuading the one-time Liverpool trainee to add extra years to a deal that expires in 2015.

Gauld, in particular, has attracted attention beyond these shores, the attendance at every recent United game swollen by scouts from some of European football's biggest clubs eager to assess the 17-year-old in the flesh. Souttar, also just 17, has already rejected the advances of Sunderland, and there will likely be other bids for other players thrust in Thompson's direction in the coming weeks and months.

McNamara, though, insists the club are under no financial pressure to sell when the transfer window opens. Every offer will be considered in its own right but his intention is to build a team capable of staying together for the medium to long-term, hopefully maturing and improving with every performance. "For me the important thing is trying to keep the unit together," said McNamara. "Stuart was going into the last year-and-a-half of his contract and it was important for him and for us that he extended that.

"We didn't want a fire sale because you panic you'll lose them for nothing when players go into their last year. We had that last year with Johnny Russell where our hand was forced into selling him, which we wouldn't have done if he'd had another year left. With Stuart committing, it's great for us and it lets him focus on playing for us and keeping the squad together.

"The frustrating thing for me is that just as you're starting to get them playing and doing well everyone wants to sell them off. You can't help speculation, I'm talking about ex-players telling them to go here or go there. For me, the best place for them is here. We've said from the start of the season we want to try and build something for the future, not dismantle it."

Armstrong is not your typical footballer. Unfailingly polite and well-spoken, he does not have an agent because "until this point in my career I've not had a need for one". His father handled his contract negotiations, with the player seemingly unaware exactly how long he had agreed to stay for. "I think signing the extension is just showing how much I'm enjoying playing for the club," he said.

McNamara has found that approach and attitude refreshing. "When you speak to the boys you realise they're not your normal youngsters, and I don't mean that to sound disrespectful," he said. "They're very level-headed. Some boys' heads can be turned by speculation or when the spotlight is on them but you can see in their performances it's not hindering them in any way. They're focused and they're embracing it very well and for me that comes from their parents and their background.

"I won't stand here and have a pop at agents; they'll do what's best for the player but also for themselves and sometimes the quick move is not the right one. I'm a great believer that things happen the right way. It's not the agent who gets you the move - it's the player. And if it is the agent, then it's not a true deal."

Gauld is the one attracting most of the attention at the moment but Armstrong is not without suitors. If anything, at 21 and with 100 first-team appearances already under his belt, he would seem lower risk for any club tempted to make a raid on Tannadice. "I think Stuart's got so many qualities," McNamara said. "His movement is exceptional and he's very intelligent on and off the park. He makes some fantastic runs, he's an all-round midfielder. He's got everything to be a top footballer."

McNamara, however, is realistic enough to know that not every player will want to commit their long-term future to the club. Gavin Gunning is out of contract in the summer and is not rushing to extend, while others may have their heads turned should big clubs come in for them. "If offers come in for the players then I'll sit down with them and speak to them, like we did with John Souttar and Sunderland," he said. "I want to be open and honest with them rather than hiding things. I want to have that trust in each other that you want them to be here.

"The time will come when all of them will probably leave - there's no doubt about that - but it's important it's the right move for them. Nobody will be happier than me when they go to the next level."

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