In 2012, Dundee United footballer Ryan Gauld made his full league debut at the tender age of 16. He struck his first senior goal against St Johnstone a year later in April 2013. In the 2013-2014 season, he scored eight goals in the Scottish league and cup campaigns and has now signed for the same club that produced Luis Figo, Ricardo Quaresma and, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo.
He possesses a cultured left foot and the ability to ghost past opponents, which has seen him dubbed the ‘mini Messi.’ It’s fair to say that Ryan Gauld is the most exciting talent to have emerged from Scotland in a long, long time.
Reportedly scouted by top clubs across Europe, the Aberdeen-born starlet has taken the brave but perhaps sensible decision to move to Sporting Lisbon over a potential switch to England. The club, as mentioned earlier, has produced a number of Europe’s top talents with the latest ‘big thing’ William Carvalho being the subject of much transfer speculation.
In terms of a soccer education, Gauld can expect to see an emphasis on the technical part of the game over physicality. Indeed, the style of play appeared to influence Gauld’s decision as he admitted to being a fan of Spanish football. In Portugal, he should find a similar level of focus on technique.
What’s striking to note about Gauld is how short he is. In fact, he’s two inches shorter than Lionel Messi. That he initially made it in a league and football culture that normally values size and athleticism over technical ability is quite a story in itself.
As his reputation was burgeoning in Scotland, opponents began to target the youngster from Laurencekirk.
So what does the 18-year old possess that made him such hot property across Europe? Firstly, his technique, calmness and skill on the ball ensure that he stands out from the crowd. His ability to dribble past opponents in tight spaces makes him an extremely difficult player to mark, and his in-match awareness is quite remarkable for someone of his age. Gauld credits the development of that aspect of his game to his former skills coach Ian Cathro, who’s currently part of the coaching set-up at Rio Ave.
“He was always saying that you need to see not just the pass that you are going to play but when that person receives the ball, think of what they can do with it, so thinking of the second and the third pass,”
Gauld said “a lot of nights of the week we would just work on awareness, just knowing what’s about you. It’s a key part of my game.”
Dundee United manager Jackie McNamara certainly believes Gauld is ahead of the curve.
“His vision, his ability, is just fantastic,” McNamara enthused “upstairs, his football brain is way beyond his years, way beyond anything I’ve seen before.”
It also helps that Gauld appears to be rather level-headed. The fact that he wanted to work on his in-match awareness displays a level of maturity and willingness to learn that is a prerequisite for all developing players that need to reach right to the top. It would have been easy to chase Premier League money but that may have also seen him being placed on the bench or sent to a lower league club on loan to learn his craft.
The decision to move to Portugal displays a confidence to adapt to new challenges, a different culture and place his football development ahead of financial rewards, though he’ll still be paid a healthy salary. The President of Sporting Lisbon Bruno de Carvalho stated “we can guarantee him time in the first team and that wouldn’t have been easy in the Premier League.”
Looking at the bigger picture, this move is a positive development for Scottish football on a number of levels. Gauld’s transfer to Sporting Lisbon demonstrates that Scotland can produce talent worthy of larger European leagues. On the local level, clubs can see the value of integrating smaller skillful players into their club rather than just picking the stereotypical big lad. Seeing Gauld succeed could inspire more Scottish players to focus on their technique rather than power. On top of that, seeing him play in Portugal could convince a number of young Scottish players to ply their trade abroad rather than just seeing England as the only potential career avenue.
Gauld though will still need to strengthen as he will still be the line of fire of his opponents. His slight frame will be targeted as a weakness by defenders who may seek to bully Gauld out of a game. The Primeira Liga may not have the physical reputation of the Premier League but that’s not going to stop players marking Gauld out for special treatment. If Gauld is going to be his team’s go-to man, then he’ll need to expect being at the rough end of a few challenges.
He may not feature too much next season but considering he has a £47 million release clause, Sporting Lisbon is expecting big things of the young Scot.
Maybe the final word about Gauld should be left to his former manager and ex-Scotland international Jackie McNamara.
“Ryan is going to be a massive star in our (Scotland) national team. There’s no doubt about that. He will be one of the greats of our game.”