In July 2014 Scottish attacking midfielder Ryan Gauld signed for Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon in a deal worth £3 million. This contract tied the young Aberdonian-born player to Sporting Lisbon for six years and put a €60 million buy-out clause on their new man. This was a lot of money for a player who had only played one full season as a first-team pro. Gauld was no ordinary player, however. He had been dubbed “Mini-Messi” by the press. We may live in an overly sensationalised world, but when a young teenager is put in the same bracket as the greatest player to have played the game, you take notice.
Few could have predicted the astronomical rise to stardom for Gauld. He was playing for a Champions League calibre team in their impressive Estádio José Alvalade at an age where his peers were picking university classes or trying to decide what meals they could sacrifice to afford a decent night out at the pub. Before he had even kicked a ball competitively for the first team, manager Marco Silva had included him in his Champions League 25-man squad.
The sky was the limit for Gauld, who surely could not quite believe how things were turning out for him.
It had been little over two years since his professional debut – the final three minutes of an away game against Motherwell for Dundee United; manager Peter Houston subbing him on in place of fan-favourite Johnny Russell to kill the clock in a 2-0 victory. Even the most generous of United fans would struggle to say that this brief appearance was enough to suggest that he was on a trip to the big time, though with each game he played the picture was becoming clearer and clearer.
He made a handful of appearances for Peter Houston, however, it was the emergence of new Tannadice boss Jackie McNamara where the young attacker thrived. Jackie McNamara is a hated figure at Dundee United now, synonymous with their relegation from the top flight in 2016 and held largely culpable for their demise due to his willingness to sell star players for his own financial gain. Prior to the s**t hitting the fan, McNamara did assemble a team of remarkable young talent who played scintillating football for a period.
The 2013-14 Dundee United saw Ryan Gauld play in a free-flowing attacking side with the likes of Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven, Andrew Robertson and John Souttar. It was this raw attacking flair that saw United, who had begun to stagnate under Peter Houston in the years following their 2010 Scottish Cup Final victory, become one of the most lethal teams in the country.
The team was far from perfect, a mix of tactical naivety from McNamara coupled with the simple fact that a young team, while exciting, were culpable of simple errors, meant that points were dropped frequently. When it clicked though, they were unplayable. This season saw United put at least four goals past their opponents on eight occasions, including five times in six games in November-December.
Two more 4+ goal victories occurred in the Scottish Cup that season, a year which saw Dundee United reach the final. Gauld played a key role in the route to the 2014 Scottish Cup final, starting three of the four games leading up to the final in May. This included a goal against St Mirren, as well as a spellbinding performance against the newly formed Glasgow Rangers in the semi-final.
There was disappointment amongst the United faithful when Gauld was confirmed to be starting the game on the bench. He was brought on for Gary Mackay Steven with 25 minutes or so to play, though he failed to help United find a way back into the game, allowing St Johnstone their first-ever Scottish Cup title.
The Dundee United fans were crushed. The league had got away from them, their free-flowing football being found out too often as they slumped to an underwhelming 5th place finish. Once the disappointment had lifted, as much as a cup final loss can, there was a sense of positivity. They had seen some of the most captivating football that Tannadice had born witness to in decades and they had a strong core of young players.
As is the way with a young side that plays exciting football, the vultures started to circle, and the bids came in. In the same month that saw Andy Robertson transfer to Hull City, Ryan Gauld was the star of a bidding war. Real Madrid, Arsenal, Manchester United and Roma were all linked with Mini-Messi, but it was Portuguese powerhouse Sporting Lisbon who secured his signature.
It was not easy for Gauld. After grafting for years to become a first-team player with United he joined Sporting and was thrown into the role of a youngster. His days of starting week in week out were over, for the time being at least. Despite the price of approximately £3 million, he was put into the B team at Sporting until Marco Silva felt that he was ready for the demands of top-flight football.
He was not trusted to play league football immediately; however, he was given the boost of being placed into the 25-man Champions League squad for that season. Gauld did not play even a second of European football in his first season, failing to even make a match day squad. Sporting were in a tightly contested group with Chelsea, Schalke and Maribor, therefore every game mattered, as did their knockout tie against the fearsome Wolfsburg side in the Europa League post-Christmas.
As it happened, he didn’t play for the first team until late December 2014, completing 90 minutes in a 2-0 victory over Vitoria. He built on this momentum by being named Man of the Match in his next game a fortnight later against Boavista. These appearances came in the cup competition, the Taca da Liga, the same competition where he scored his first goals for the club; a brace in a 3-2 loss to Belenenses.
The young attacker played two league appearances for the Lisbon outfit, taking his tally for the season to five appearances across all competitions, with two goals to his name. This was a perfectly respectable tally for a youngster playing his first season in a foreign country, particularly when it is factored in that he played 26 times for the B team that season, notching 3 goals. He did have players like Nani ahead of him in the first team, so opportunities came at a premium.
Gauld would have naturally hoped to have built on his first-team playing time in the 2015/16 season, but he was blindsided by the departure of manager Marco Silva. Silva was fired by Sporting despite winning the club their first bit of silverware since 2008. Allegedly his dismissal for not wearing the club suit in a match against Vizela – a game that occurred in December 2014. It can only be suggested that a fallout between board and manager occurred.
Silva landed on his feet, managing Olympiacos in Greece for a year before moving to the dizzy heights of the English Premier League. Gauld did not fair so well. The coach who had bought him and was readying him for first-team action was gone. The Scottish playmaker never made another first-team appearance for Sporting Lisbon again.
Gauld played a full season for the Sporting B side, though things were got even more strained the season after. Ryan Gauld got his wish to leave on loan, joining Vitoria Setbul in the 2016/17 season. Things were going well for Gauld; he was not playing as many minutes as he may have wanted, but he was in and around the first time and was impressing then-boss Jose Couceiro with his style of play.
Vitoria played Sporting in the Taca de Liga – Portugal’s premier cup competition. On the 4th of January 2017, Vitoria won with a penalty in the dying seconds of the game to progress, dumping the Champions League pedigree side out of the tournament. The penalty and subsequent Sporting red card was deemed as highly controversial and ignited a rivalry between the two clubs. In an act of sheer petulance, Sporting recalled Ryan Gauld from his loan. According to Jose Couceiro, this derailed Vitoria’s season, while Gauld, who did not even play in the cup tie, was sent back to Lisbon to train with the B team once more.
To be clear, Gauld did nothing wrong. He had asked to be loaned out in a bid to play first-team football again and was doing well at a top-flight club. He was in no way involved in the heated cup match, yet upon his return to Lisbon, he fell further out of favour. He was seen as fraternising with the enemy and his uphill battle to play for the Sporting first team became even steeper.
A series of loan moves resulted as it was becoming clearer and clearer that Gauld wasn’t going to get another crack with Sporting Lisbon. He played a full season with Aves in 2017/18, managing to play 18 games. This was less minutes than he would have played with the B team in Sporting, but felt significantly more valuable playing first division football again.
He spent the first half of the following season with Farense before joining Hibernian in the Scottish Premiership. It was his old stomping ground, albeit slightly different wearing the green of Hibs rather than the Tangerine he dawned at Dundee United. Hibernian should have been a great move for Gauld, though a hamstring injury saw him play only six games for the Edinburgh outfit.
This was not the jump-start in his career that the player needed – quite the opposite in fact. The departure of Marco Silva was unfortunate. The Vitoria loan debacle was farcical. But a hamstring injury is pretty damning to a professional footballer. It is hard to shake off that reputation and certainly made him a harder sale for his agent upon his departure from Sporting Lisbon in the summer of 2019.
There were no dearth of clubs chasing his signature upon his free agency, with a return to Dundee United being a surprising option that seemed close to happening. Aberdeen and Rangers were both linked too, along with several teams around Europe. In the end it was Farense who secured his signature, the midfielder evidently feeling that he had unfinished business there.
Why did Ryan Gauld decide to stay in Portugal, and why did he opt to sign for a side in the 2nd division? He could have surely found a bigger club in a league closer to home. Perhaps he is determined to prove himself in Portugal: after so much early promise it must have stung to be released by Sporting a year prior to his contract expiring. Maybe it was because his game simply suits the style of football out in Portugal more than the direct and aggressive style shown by many British sides.
There is also the possibility that, despite the Mini-Messi tag thrust upon him as a teenager, that he is simply not interested in achieving such levels of grandeur. He will get paid a good wage by Farense to play football week in week out for the first time in a long time and will get to live in Faro, Portugal. That is really not a bad way to spend your twenties…
Gauld has a €4 million release clause at Farense, which shows that he is in no way “washed up” or “past his best”. This is a shrewd move by the team, in fact. If Gauld does rekindle his form from his time on Tayside then the 2nd division side will certainly benefit financially. If he can’t quite live up to the hype of his youth then they still have a hungry, talented attacking midfielder who will surely be a huge asset to his side.
When Ryan Gauld departed Dundee United for Sporting Lisbon nobody could have foreseen the way his career has panned out over the past five years. It is underwhelming for sure. The Mini-Messi comments, while fun for the fans, were never really that well-founded – Messi is a once-in-a-lifetime player. But it was hoped that he would have thrived more in Lisbon over the years that he was there. He has certainly suffered some bad luck and endured a frustrating hierarchy in Portugal. One can only hope that Gauld, who is still only 23 years old, can get back to his best at Farense and play at the highest level one day. And if he can’t recapture that form…? Well, then there are worse places to contemplate potential unfulfilled than by the beach in Faro.