Ryan Gauld on his ‘Mini Messi’ pressure, Sporting Lisbon setbacks and why he has a point to prove at Farense

(Image: Global Media Group/Sipa USA)

Ryan Gauld was once regarded as Scotland’s “Mini Messi” with the world at his feet and attracting interest from the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Real Madrid at 17.

The now 24-year old followed his dream to play abroad, signing for Sporting Lisbon in a blockbuster £3million move and after years of frustration, four loans spells away and injuries, the Scotsman is finally living up to his priceless potential at Farense.

Last week, Gauld was awarded Liga Pro’s Player of the Year for his impressive performances as he helped the Portuguese side Farense get promoted to the top flight.

And the Scot is over the moon after receiving the accolade and finally getting a chance to prove what he’s made of as he scored eight goals and provided eight assists in 24 games before the season was curtailed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

He said:

“I was absolutely delighted to win the Player of the Year award because there are a lot of good players in the second division and a very good quality of football. It was voted by other managers and captains of the team in the league so I was very grateful to win it.

“It’s definitely been the season where I’ve had less injuries, more games and is my highest scoring season, I’m annoyed it ended the way it did as I had scored five goals in my last three games before the shutdown, but it wasn’t just me who’s been affected by this pandemic. I was really enjoying the year I was having, I felt like I was doing really well and I was very confident.”

It’s been a bumpy road for the midfielder, however, to reach this point. 

Gauld arrived in Lisbon with huge expectations on his shoulders, but he failed to force his way into the first team and spent the majority of his time playing for the B side.

Credit: PA:Press Association

He has no regrets over the decision, though, and says he’s only disappointed he didn’t achieve what he set out to do, other people’s expectations were irrelevant.

He added:  

Ever since football became a serious thing for me I’ve always wanted to go and play abroad and try live in a different culture, play a different type of football and learn a new language, so when the opportunity rose I jumped at it wasn’t going to turn it down because I never knew if something like it would come around again.

“It was difficult at the beginning to adapt to life in Portugal, but like everything It took time. Once I felt a little more settled, I began to really love it.  

“I don’t feel like I haven’t lived up to everyone’s expectations because I have my own expectations for myself to reach certain levels and I’m only disappointed that I didn’t achieve what I wanted and not because I didn’t achieve what other people had set out for me.”

Reflecting on his time at Sporting, Gauld admits he probably put too much pressure on himself to succeed and the “Mini Messi” label actually hurt him, more than it helped him.

He said:

“It was just one of those things that I had to laugh about at the time because I didn’t want it to affect my football. I wasn’t exactly pleased about it as it did bring on a bit of extra pressure to myself.”

It was actually a solid debut season for Gauld as he made 26 appearances for the second-string side and played for the first team in the Taca Da Liga and racked up a couple of league appearances. He was also included in the 25-man Champions League squad against Chelsea, Schalke, and Maribor.

But it was the arrival of Jorge Jesus from Benfica in 2015 after the sacking of Marco Silva that scuppered any chance of breaking into the first team as Sporting banished the club’s youth development and brought in more experienced players such as Alberto Aquilani (31), Teófilo Gutiérrez (30) and Bryan Ruiz (29).

The attacking midfielder was in the B side all season, making another 38 appearances and Gauld was forced to look elsewhere in search of first team football. 

He added:

“The arrival of the new manager definitely made things tougher and I was then forced to look at loan moves away to gain first-team football in the first division because I realised it wasn’t going to work for me at Sporting. There were actually a few years where I had to organise my own moves just to try and get out and play first-team football.”

Gauld had various loan spells at Vitoria De Setubal, Aves, Farense and even made his return to Scotland with Hibs for a short spell in January 2019.

But it didn’t work out like he hoped as he pulled his hamstring and managed to only play 371 minutes of football at Easter Road.

He said:

“I was very disappointed with my time at Hibs, I played in two games and then Neil Lennon left so I was injured when the new manager came in. It was a difficult time to be honest, as Hibs gave me a great opportunity and I couldn’t quite get my fitness up and get a run of games.”

When Gauld returned back to Sporting, he was given the news that no footballer wants to hear: “you’re free to find a new club”. 

There were strong links to clubs in Scotland, but surprisingly Gauld opted to stay in Portugal when it was thought he’d be on the first flight out of the country. He signed a two-year deal at Farense after an enjoyable loan spell during the first half of the 2018/19 campaign.

He believes he had a point to prove that he could be a success in Portugal.

He added:

“I wanted to stay here in Farense simply because I loved my time here before I went to Hibs. They had a really good project in place to get back to the first division and obviously it’s worked out very well. I wasn’t exactly wanting to rush back to Scotland because I didn’t exactly enjoy my time when I was playing with Hibs.  

“I feel like I had a lot of unfinished business here in Portugal and that I have a point to prove this season because of how things went with Sporting along with the loan moves. I want to show everyone I can be a good player when playing against good players so hopefully I’ll get an opportunity this season.”

Gauld will always have fond memories of his time at Dundee United playing alongside the likes of Andy Robertson, Stuart Armstrong, and Gary Mackay-Steven.

It was a tight-knit group who were praised for their free-flowing football under Jack McNamara.

But he is glad to see them back in Scotland’s top flight where they rightfully belong.

He said:

“My Dundee United debut was very special and to be honest it came at a time when I wasn’t expecting it as I had only trained with the first-team for a week. I really enjoyed playing alongside Gary {Mackay-Steven}, Andy {Robertson}, Nadir {Ciftci}and Stuart {Armstrong}. We were a very attacking team and it was brilliant to play in, we had some good times together.

“It’s been a tough couple of years for United, but I watch their games whenever I can and it’s great to see back in the Scottish Premiership as it’s where they belong.”

Gauld has one year left on his deal at Farense, with an option of another and although clubs may be interested this summer, the attacking midfielder – who is now fluent in Portuguese and eligible for a Portuguese citizenship – seems to be loving life in the Algarve.

Speaking about what the future holds, Gauld added: “At the moment I’m only looking at the next year and getting back into the first division. I’m hoping that the transfer business will take care of itself next summer when I sit down and discuss my contract.  

“I wouldn’t really fancy returning to Scotland anytime soon to be honest with you as I’m really enjoying my time abroad and ideally, I’d like my next move to keep me abroad also, but if I did return to Scotland, Dundee United would certainly be the number one choice.”

The national team hasn’t exactly been full of fire as we have evidently seen over the course of the international break and Gauld, who’s represented the younger Scots at U19 and U21 level still harbours major ambitions of playing for the Scottish National side.

He is hoping that Stevie Clarke will be closely watching him closely next season now that he’s back in the top flight playing against the likes of Benfica, FC Porto and of course, Sporting Lisbon.

Credit: SNS Group

He said:

“I hope I can get a call up as everyone dreams about playing for their country. I just need to keep focussed on what I am doing and If I am performing well and to a high standard in the first division then hopefully Stevie {Clarke} will take a look at me.”

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