The Gauld Alliance - context is everything
Updated: Apr 14
I have a friend from Serbia who might be the nicest human being I've ever met. Coming to Scotland was an eye-opener for him, though 'peculiar-squinting' might actually be the best ocular-themed descriptor for how he looks at me when trying to sift my brogue.
In his home country, he was a talented carpenter and used to make his own furniture. Over here, the language is a bit of a problem and so he's found a job doing manual-labouring whilst learning English, working up to the point of confidence and self-assuredness, which we as his friends encourage; you'd no doubt do the same.
It would be silly to think that his talent, there for everyone to see, had evaporated. The logical conclusion is that given the right support and conditioning, it's just a matter of time before things come together. Context is everything.
Now, let's imagine that things were different for my friend. Instead of moving here quietly, such was his talent, that much was expected, far too much, too soon. The supersonic hype-train had gone on ahead of his plane, with no place for his luggage alongside crushingly overbearing monikers which unhelpfully compared him to the best joiners in the world.
Imagine that even video games took hold, and so, much like Cherno Samba or Mark Kerr, in Joiner Manager 2020, he was the stand-out apprentice you'd sign up for tuppence straight away. In fact, imagine that my friend became laden with such preposterous expectation across the 'content-injection generation', that when it was clear that he was still only a young man and needed time to grow, they dumped him and wrote him off.
His company were no better, farming him out to multiple subsidiaries across the country, only when he came back each time, they had changed managers and direction as often as he had house and colleagues.
Imagine all this and consider not only its unjust absurdity but more importantly; is my friend the same talented carpenter that got on the plane to pursue his dreams as a young man?
Of course he is.
Now, that's quite the groundwork for a football article, but let me ask you one more question. If I told you there was a young Scottish player, in the form of his life and looking set to play every game next season as the stand-out creative player in a top league in Europe, would you be interested in hearing about him?
Of course you would.
Last season, this 24-year-old wore the armband on occasion, helping to guide Sporting Clube Farense to promotion from LigaPro to the Primeira Liga, Portugal's top division. He not only finished the season superbly as the club's top scorer but rather impatiently as support-skipper; why? Farense were only two points behind a stuttering Nacional, and the Scot wanted to lift the trophy, as well as score a few more goals.
He was never mini-Messi, but he is Ryan Gauld, and context is everything.
The world at his feet, again, for the first time
'It was a compliment... whoever has come up with it has meant it as a compliment to myself, but at the same time its kind of followed me, and held me down a wee bit wherever I've gone... I think the only comparison you can make is that we're small and left-footed.'
Gauld, speaking to John Walker regarding that nickname,
-'Scots Abroad' , The Trampled Bet Podcast, March 2020
If you listen carefully, you can hear it... silence. The rattling of the hype-train is long gone, and now expectation-free, the Aberdonian has had room to grow, so imperceptively, that it requires some careful looking in Portugal's second tier. Physical strength might not be his most obvious attribute, but in shaking off the monster of media-sensationalism, we have seen enough of the fighter within to know that Gauld has a point to prove, and people are starting to pay attention.
Following a disappointing spell on loan at Hibs from last January, it took Gauld a while to warm up in the Algarve come August. Whilst continually playing well, his attacking end-product wasn't quite coming off, with a respectable 1 goal and 2 assists from his opening 10 games. That was until the Winter break arrived and something changed, hitting an astonishing 7 goals and 1 assist in 7 games, including a hat-trick. So how do we explain the shift? He lets John Walker in on the secret.
'I'm getting in more attacking positions. Not just with the ball but without the ball. Lately, I've been getting in the right position, when the ball has been on the other side I've been getting ahead of people at the near post.'
This sounds more like the Ryan Gauld many of us fell in love with at Dundee United. Back in 2014, it was through the tangerine half of the City of Discovery, alongside flatmates John Soutar and Andy Robertson, that he was part of an excellent side also comprising Stuart Armstrong, Johnny Russell and Gary Mackay-Steven. I recall being very excited to see them in action when my Rangers-supporting brother-in-law invited me along to the Scottish Cup semi-final at 'neutral' Ibrox.
Assist for Gary Mackay-Steven's goal
Gauld was influential that day in a 3-1 win, buzzing around behind Nadir Çiftçi, helping to send a superb Jackie McNamara side to Hampden. He was also unquestionably brilliant that season, only losing out on the Scottish Young Player of the Year to Robertson.
If you had asked me, alongside the other 50,000 spectators that day, if we would be surprised that a huge club might soon come calling for the 18-year-old, you'd find little resistance; though those wearing blue might've been disappointed to know it was for famous green and white hoops that Gauld would be leaving come the Summer.
Gauld's breakout season
My first season [at Sporting] was my best. At 18 I was playing the League Cup games, got a few goals, coming off the bench. At the time I thought it was a great start but there was a change of manager that summer and the new one didn’t fancy me.
- interview with the Guardian, May 2020
'Therein lies the rub', as another young heir to an impossible throne once mused when feeling similarly bereft. At the heart of this are a few simple questions; how could any young footballer be expected to thrive in a new country with little support from within and overbearing expectations from without? Secondly; why on earth do we expect footballers, or fictional Danish princes, to be super-human when they're really just young men going through life like the rest of us?
To attempt an answer at these, we are going to rely upon a similarly well-tried semantic device, something Hamlet's creator often birthed incidentally; the cliché. We're going to let Gauld's 'football do the talking', and rather than have it fall upon deaf ears we'll see that his feet are very convincing advocates of his ability.
Beautiful. The best thing about it is, even the striker is surprised
Gauld finds space and moves the ball quickly. He often receives it between the lines and is aware enough to know whether or not he can turn, drive, or needs to play it first-time. This ability is effortless for him, natural, it comes intuitively, and it has been crucial to Farense's progress because, with consistent game-time, his weight of pass and decision making is as sharp as it has been for years. This means if he needs to dribble, he'll dribble, if he needs to move it quickly, he has the precision of pass and weight of touch to do what is needed - the flexibility of his game within that space between the lines is evident to all, and it's as attractive on the eye as ever.
I'm not quite sure how else to put it except to say that Gauld looks composed every time he has the ball. He looks completely in control and at ease with what he can do, often before it happens, which I know sounds ridiculous, but as we all know with the ridiculous, the sublime isn't far away.
We remembered a player who could dribble at pace with the ball ever-close to that gifted left foot, a player who could lose opponents so uniquely with a craft and guile that drew applause, that was if they were ever close enough to challenge him. That this youthful ebullience has now been bolstered by a real toughness, via struggle, over time, means you have an even more dangerous player. He hasn't lost the joy that set him apart at United, adding instead a further effervescence that comes from a mature reading of the game. All this is to say that his performances shine every bit as brightly as they once did, even if in a kit now more tonal than tangerine.
So where has this recent form sprung from, and where has it been hiding? Few know this better than the man responsible for first recognising this blend of zestful maturity, giving Gauld the armband to boot, his head coach at Farense, Sergio Vieira.
'He didn’t play much for the [Sporting] first team but I remember his good games, especially when he was on loan at Vitoria Setubal in Primeira Liga. Sadly, he was forced to return to Sporting in the middle of the season, not giving him the continuity that he desired. He was playing well in the Primeira so it was really a shame that he couldn’t play more games.'
- in an interview with MailSport, May 2020
Gauld also remembers this time. Whilst on loan at Vitoria Setubal from Sporting in 2017, he was playing well in the top flight, that was until Vitoria had the cheek to score a controversial late penalty, dumping the Lisbon giants out the cup. The next morning, Gauld's loan was immediately, and petulantly, terminated and he was brought back to dwindle in Sporting's B-team playing second division football. More loans followed between 2017-2019 at C.D. Aves, Farense and Hibernian respectively, interspersed with time in the B-team.
Still, a steely determination and willingness to work hard on his game, constantly ready, stood him in good stead for those that would look past the lingering echo of fanfare to see his talents.
Ryan being a young player and having to adjust to the Portuguese game, was always put on the side and he just wasn’t given the chances he deserved... I believe if it was today, Ryan would be playing in Sporting Lisbon’s first 11 and a reference point of the team. He can be one of the best players in Primeira Liga next season.
Sergio Vieira, ibid
Let that last phrase sink in a little, '[he] can be one of the best players in Primeira Liga'. Astonishing isn't it? Before you pardon it away by saying, 'of course his manager would say that', let's think about what he stands to gain or lose by such a statement. Is Sergio Vieira aware of the weight of expectation which previously encumbered his midfield playmaker? We know that he is, so what is he doing? Vieira was one of the few who remembered Gauld and sought him out after Sporting's treatment of the player had seemingly extinguished the fire of exciting promise. He was one of the few to see that a smouldering wick remained.
Whether this smoulder held on through bitterness or resentment, Gauld does not let show, instead, he refers to his former employers with good grace whenever asked, speaking of it being personally 'frustrating' rather than becoming embroiled in criticism. This shows a depth of character and self-belief that triumphs over the very real hurt he must have experienced, and we can see that his current boss understands this, in fact; Vieira seems to have nurtured that wick back to flame.
It is therefore with some form of surety and belief that we few who willed the fire of his talents back into life from afar can be optimistic about seeing him next season. Vieira knows what he is doing when he says his star player would be a 'reference point' for Sporting and 'one of the best players in the league'. He is aware of the relationship Gauld has with Sporting and what has gone on before. Rather than re-apply pressure via a familiar load, his manager also knows three things that we would do well to pay attention to. One, that Gauld will hear him say these things. Two, that it will motivate him and he will rise to meet it, and three; he knows that his best player and top goalscorer can now handle it.
O' Captain, my Captain!
That Gauld is captain material may surprise a few, but consider what we've uncovered so far. He has an innate mastery of the ball that is the envy of most, possessing an ability to do things that create more chances and goals for his team than anyone else. This fact isn't merely my default-positivity filtered through Caledonian-tinted spectacles, let's listen to Vieira once more;
'When I compare Ryan to the average Brazilian player, I think he has more... I know that because I coached in Brazil’s first division for three years. I can strongly say that Ryan is a top player even when compared to the best in Brazil... I’ve worked with some top players such as Dier, Bruma, Marcos Rojo, Arias, and many others... but Ryan is up there with the best of them.'
The crucial factor here is that Gauld is backing up his manager's assertions. This isn't hot air or bluster, there's no sensationalism or hyperbole here, nobody trying to score hits on social media. He was left alone to play, and this is the result.
That is why we have spoken about last season rather than focus on his United highlights - he is doing all these beautiful things now, every game, all the time - if he wasn't we wouldn't have any quotes or footage to gush over.
As it is, I've had to curtail it. There are plenty of lovely touches and first-time through balls to see, this is only a glimpse of what he is doing at the moment. LigaPro statistics are hard to come by, but I can only imagine from what I've seen what his SCA (Shot Creating Actions) and GCA (Goal Creating Actions) must be like - almost everything he does results in a progression with the ball, and frequently a chance for a teammate. With better finishing, who knows what his numbers could have looked like.
Does my carpenter pal still have his talents? Folks, he's better than ever.
'When I was on social media I was getting compared to Freddy Adu and other 'wonderkids', that's why I never liked that whole mini-Messi thing from the start, you hear about so many 'wonderkids', but it's so tough to actually kick on and have a really successful career, it's not as easy as everyone thinks. You know, I'm still only 24, I've got plenty of time.'
Gauld, speaking to John Walker, ibid
This. This is the most impressive thing we can learn about Ryan Gauld. The mentality that young man must have, to endure what he has done and re-emerge, dignity intact and playing the best football of his career, is remarkable. He has done it the right way. He appears a lovely lad by all accounts, well-spoken, articulate and respectful to those who many in his position would have thrown to the wall, but don't think that this equates to being soft.
In going back to Portugal, again, and leading a team by the scruff of the neck to promotion, Gauld has shown all of those who had written him off that alongside the delicate touches and immaculate control, there is a rock-hard dedication to succeeding. Whatever his motivation might be, and he keeps it quiet, I'd like a shot of it to combat the ills of the content-injection generation that forced him off social media.
Eventually, I hope to see Gauld's name trending once again, this time next to a Farense victory over Sporting; not because we at A\M are partisan, but because it would appeal to the Count of Monte Cristo in me, but that's just silly... he isn't an Alexandre Dumas character anymore than he is a Shakespearean one. He isn't mini-Messi either.
He's the best player in a team that will play in the Portuguese top-flight next year. He's their top goalscorer, from midfield. He is the stand-in captain, and leader, that sinks crucial penalties on his way to a hat-trick. He is the battler who accumulated 5 yellow cards to go with the assists. He is still ridiculously talented, young enough to be brimming full of promise; but old enough to draw on game-winning match experience. He's all these things, only now, he's got the bit between his teeth and is moving with purpose.
As my friend values his time as a labourer for making him an even better joiner, so Gauld is twice the player that left Dundee United for Portugal, which is very good news for Scotland, enabling us to close with another cliché; Ryan Gauld is back, write him off at your peril.