What kind of player can Hibernian expect to find in the returning Ryan Gauld?

He was touted as “the Scottish Messi” but after a big move to Portugal and multiple loans spells, things haven’t worked out for Gauld. Now, as he returns to Scottish football and links up with Neil Lennon at Hibernian, everybody is wondering if the teenage prodigy can finally fulfil his potential.

Switch back to the 2013-14 season in the Scottish Premiership and exciting things were happening at Dundee United.

Under the brave management of Jackie McNamara, a crop talented youngsters were intriguing football fans across the nation. 

Players that would form the core of the Scotland squad in the years to come were playing a thrilling brand of football at Tannadice.

If you reel off the names now, Andrew Robertson and Stuart Armstrong would probably be the two that would jump out to most football fans. Perhaps Gary Mackay-Steven to Celtic supporters.

However, go back to that time when they were all together and Ryan Gauld was the name that was on everybody’s lips.

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Despite his small frame and the fact that he looked about 13, Gauld acquitted himself remarkably well in the traditionally physical Scottish Premiership.

His close ball control, vision and an eye for goal drew predictable comparisons to a certain Argentinian genius. 

Such comparisons are never easy to live with. Gauld did, admittedly, style his game on that of Messi’s but the tag of being “the Scottish Messi”, did him no favours. It seems that every country has their own Messi.

Patrick Roberts has been called the English Messi, Xherdan Shaqiri is hailed as the Messi of the Alps and Ryo Miyaichi was the Japanese Messi. Alen Halilović has also struggled with the burden of being likened to the great man.

At Dundee United, though, you felt that Gauld was at home. He shared a flat with Andrew Robertson, John Souttar and Joe McGovern. That team was one big group of mates and it showed on the pitch as they made the Scottish Cup final and finished 4th in the league in the 2013/14 season. 

However, since those heady days, Dundee United and Ryan Gauld’s fortunes have changed. Ironically, both have been playing in the second flight this season – United in the Scottish Championship and Gauld on loan at Sporting Clube Farense in Portugal’s LigaPro (second division).

In the summer of 2014, Gauld signed for Sporting Lisbon on a six-year contract. The fee was believed to be in the region of £3m with a €60m buy-out clause inserted into his contract.

That buy-out clause made a few people gasp. One of the biggest clubs in Portugal, with a history of developing outstanding players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Luís Figo, had placed a lot of confidence in the young man from Aberdeen.

Gauld was placed in the club’s B-team but included in their 25-man Champions League squad having caught manager Marco Silva’s eye in pre-season training.

His first season at Sporting was reasonably successful. The Scot was a regular in the B-team and made his debut for the first-team on 29th December in the Taça da Liga against Vitória Sport Clube.

On the 14th January, in the same competition, Gauld was named as man of the match in 1-0 win over Boavista. He scored his first goals for the first-team against Belenenses on the 21st January, bagging a brace. 

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In his second season at the club, Gauld was loaned out to fellow first division side Vitória de Setúbal. However, he was recalled back to Sporting.

This unexpected move was reportedly due to the club being controversially eliminated from the Taça de Liga by Vitória, where Gauld was on loan. The recall didn’t help the player, who only appeared 9 times for Sporting’s B-team in what remained of the campaign. 

Further loan spells followed to Aves and then Farense in the first-half of this season. So, despite a fairly positive start in his first year and a half at the club, Gauld’s career has somewhat stagnated.

He has endured a frustrating time spent either in the Sporting B-team or out on various loan spells to Portuguese clubs.

You could imagine that at times he has felt quite isolated. In a country he doesn’t know, being transported from one unfamiliar setting to another. Which is why this January it was unsurprising to see him jump at the opportunity to return home.

That opportunity was provided by Neil Lennon’s Hibernian side on a loan deal until the end of the season. Hibs were very keen to sign the player with winger Martin Boyle currently absent after sustaining an injury whilst on Asia Cup duty with Australia last month.

It is unknown as to whether the deal will be made permanent in the summer, or if Sporting wish to persevere with the investment they made.

For now, though, the 23-year old has a chance to impress back on home soil under a manger who will allow him to express himself.

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The tag of being a player with great potential has weighed heavily on Gauld through-out his short career and the fact that he is yet to even be capped by the Scottish national team, suggests that he has fallen short of those expectations.

That said, a good run for Hibs could spark a career revival. Sometimes, a move back to your roots can make you realise why you fell in love with the game and hopefully Gauld will experience that.

There will certainly be pressure on him to perform at Easter Road, though. In the Scottish public’s eyes, he is still that wonder kid they remember. “The Scottish Messi”. 

It is certainly not too late for Gauld to make a successful career for himself but you feel that this loan spell could represent a real cross-roads in his career. If he takes his chance, the future could still be very bright.

If he doesn’t, he could slip into the unwanted list of wonder kids who failed to fulfil their potential, headed by Freddy Adu.

Forget the hype, forget the comparisons. It is time for Ryan Gauld to start performing. 

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Will Godley

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