By Stuart Milne
Scottish sensation Ryan Gauld could have been forgiven for allowing the pressure and attention his 'Mini Messi' moniker has attracted to throw his career off kilter before it has even begun but in Sporting Lisbon, the 18-year-old looks to have chosen the perfect club at which to continue his meteoric rise.
Gauld cost the Portuguese side £3 million, which might not seem too extravagant a fee at a time when Luke Shaw has moved to Manchester United for ten times the price. But, outside the artificial transfer market bubble of the Premier League, it represents a significant show of faith from the Lisbon club.
It's certainly unusual for a Scottish player - or even a British one - to move abroad at such a young age and even more significantly, Gauld has moved to a club with one of the best reputations in the world for bringing through top-class talent - you need look no further than the likes of Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo for examples of Sporting Lisbon's alumni.
So why have they shown such belief in a young Scot with only 50 first-team appearances to his name, and not a single one in European competition? After all, Scottish players are supposed to lack the technique required to play at the highest level, right? Not Gauld.
|Manager Jackie McNamara told the press that Gauld had the potential to become a "massive star" for the national team and a "British Great"|
He was given his debut at the end of the 2011-12 season as a substitute in a 2-0 win over Motherwell by former manager Peter Houston, but it was under Jackie McNamara that Gauld thrived. Throwing him in at the deep end and making him a regular starter as part of the Terrors' exciting front four, it was clear very early on that he was a player with skill, awareness and boundless potential on the pitch.
The moment the Scottish public began to take notice of his rare talent arrived in the semi-final of the 2012-13 Scottish Cup against Celtic at Hampden. Gauld received a pass from team-mate Gary Mackay-Steven that 99 per cent of players would have followed up with a shot, but not Gauld; instead, cool as you like, he returned the perfect pass back for Mackay-Steven who was able to finish a far easier chance. The composure and awareness he displayed was something special.
In the first half of the 2013-14 season, Gauld's star continued to rise. For a couple of months in late 2013, he was almost unstoppable, and in one game managed to set up four goals for his team-mates.
The technique and range of passing he displayed in that game against Partick Thistle was that of a player destined for far bigger things, and in December of that year, McNamara told the press that Gauld had the potential to become a "massive star" for the national team and a "British Great".
Though he had a quieter second half to last season - teams set out with the sole intention of marking him out of games - and even lost his place in the Dundee United team by the time they reached the Scottish Cup Final.
Despite that blip there is no doubting Gauld's ability, and it is great to see a young player realise that his future is best served moving to a league where he will have a chance to thrive in an environment that suits his style of play. Given the chance, McNamara's prediction for Gauld's future could very well come true, even if it is to the detriment of the SPL?
|If his move is a success, it'll show these kids that they can broaden their horizons and experience different footballing cultures, rather than opt for the easy money of the English leagues|
Unquestionably, he will be a loss to the league, but it could be argued that this transfer is actually a sign of an increase in the health of Scottish Football. Gauld is the poster boy for what the Scottish Football Association hopes is the future of football north of the border. Ten years ago, a player of his stature - regardless of his ability - would have been lost to the game because youth coaches would have deemed him "too small".
That's no longer the case, and with the SFA's Performance School model, based as it is on emphasising ball control and the importance of improving ability rather than pushing a win-at-all-costs mentality at youth level, there's a hope that there will be more players of his kind to come. Moreover, what this transfer might do is show the world that there is talent to be found and bought in Scotland, and therefore more money might flow into the game.
And then there's the impact it will have on Gauld's peers. If his move is a success, it'll show these kids that they can broaden their horizons and experience different footballing cultures, rather than opt for the easy money of the English leagues, where they might be lost in the shuffle when they should be playing regular football. That might be the most important factor of all.
So good luck Ryan, and do Scottish football proud!