Ryan Gauld, an all but forgotten name in Scottish football. Yet at one point he was considered to be Scotland’s saving grace. It was early in 2014 when Gauld became the back-page focus of every credible newspaper in the UK as Sporting Lisbon offered Dundee United an unprecedented £3 million for the services of the 18-year-old.
Standing at a meagre 5ft6in and having the ability to make the ball look glued to his foot as he dribbles in and out of the oncoming opposition, the comparisons between him and a certain Argentinian footballing superstar were always going to come about. The modestly named ’Scottish Messi’ had arrived to save Scotland from their vicious circle of international heartbreak, and finally lead them to a major tournament.
Yet, four years later here we are. Gauld has found himself stagnating in the same position with little prospect of first-team football. Is there still time or space for Gauld to join a bright Scottish future which includes the likes of Kieran Tierney, Callum McGregor and Harry Souttar?
Gauld made his break into a promising Dundee United team back in 2012, being substituted on for the last three minutes of the season. From there the youngster took his chance with both hands, gaining admirers beyond the boundaries of Scotland.
The young Scot came through the Dundee ranks alongside many young starlets, keen to make their mark in the SPL. He was seen to be the leader of the next generation of Scottish football, being supported by the likes of Stuart Armstrong, Scott Fraser, John Souttar, Euan Sparks and more notably, Liverpool left-back Andrew Robertson.
His first full year as a first team player is arguably one of Dundee United’s finest seasons this decade. The Terrors managed to finish fourth in the league and went on a dominant Scottish Cup run, demolishing the likes of Kilmarnock 5-2 and Inverness 5-0. They came agonisingly close to winning but were tipped to the podium by unlikely winners St. Johnstone in the final. Gauld had a detrimental part to play in that season, participating in a staggering 38 games, scoring 8 goals, and 6 assists all from the midfield.
After an emphatic season and Gauld only being the tender age of 18, a media frenzy occurred. Speculation and rumours engulfed Tannadice Park as well as the rest of the SPL. Top tear teams were clambering over each other south of the border, trying to capture the signature of Scotland’s brightest star. As always Celtic were lurking ready to snatch Gauld from Dundee with the promise of European football and second to none facilities.
It came as a shock to many when Gauld followed in the footsteps of Paul Lambert and Graeme Souness by going abroad. However, unlike Lambert and Souness, Gauld had been smart. Rather than rotting on the bench of a top tier team, He joined a club famous for nurturing and developing young talent, Sporting Club de Portugal. It seemed like a sure bet, this was the team responsible for arguably the best player ever, Cristiano Ronaldo. Not to mention Luis Figo, Nani, and Joao Moutinho.
If you needed any more persuasion to join this elite list of Sporting’s youth alumni, then look no further than England’s very own Eric Dier. Dier joined Sporting as a child and used their world-renowned youth facilities to secure his place in the starting 11 of one of England’s best teams, Tottenham Hotspur.
Considering all this, it seemed like a win-win situation for the involved parties. Dundee got a much needed £3 million, Gauld joined one of the best footballing setups in the world, and Sporting, well they got an already proven 18-year-old with a style tailor-made for Portuguese football.
So, where did it all go wrong? Obviously, being propelled into an environment the polar-opposite of Scotland was going to take some time to get used to. yet the ever-pleasing hosts accommodated the move by letting Gauld start in the B team, a side who earn their trade playing in the second tier of Portuguese football. A league similar to that of the SPL, full of veteran players and hard knocks. Yet this league is filled with an abundance of eager young talent who have been brought up to play football the right way. It seemed like the perfect formula for making footballs next icon.
After featuring heavily in the next two seasons for the B team, scoring a total of eight goals and becoming the pinnacle of the team, Gauld was offered the chance of Primera Liga football… Just not for Sporting. He was shipped out on loan to Vitoria Setubal alongside teammate Andre Gerlades. Unfortunately, their time on loan was short lived when Vitoria beat Sporting in a heated 2-1 win in the Taca da Liga cup. After the game, then manager Jorge Jesus spitefully recalled both loanees and relegated them back to the B team. A move which adversely impacted on Gauld specifically with him missing a crucial season of development due to a childish vendetta.
Since then Gauld has struggled to regain his footing, with a constant switching between leagues and teams as well as new managers coming and going, consistency was never going to be easy to find. This turbulent period in Gauld’s young career has led to what seems to be a last chance saloon loan to Farnese. It appears he has been given an ultimatum, live up to the hype or pack your bags.
With the appearance of his time at Sporting coming to an end, it looks as if Gauld is about to reach a crossroads in his career. One which could determine his story. He is reaching the age where the blurry lines between young prospect and average player merge. He will either become the pioneer of Scottish football, the player who changed it all and broadened the horizons for all future talents or be doomed to a career of mediocracy. Joining a long list of Scottish players from the amateur leagues right up to the top tier who are the ‘woulda, coulda, shouldas’.
Mediocracy would be anything less than a Premier League standard of football. This may seem like an exaggerated ultimatum but Gauld was given a price tag to go along with the hype. £3 million to be exact and a £50 million buy-out clause for good measure.
In times of worry, like the one Scotland football finds its self in, it’s easy to mascaraed a mediocre prospect as the next big thing. Yet, time and time again Ryan Gauld has found himself on the brink of becoming something special, all he has to do is reach out and take it.