FOR Ryan Gauld, a bout of homesickness has been a price worth paying in order to rid himself of a nickname which he admits became a burden.
It may have been intended as the ultimate compliment when, shortly after breaking into the Dundee United first team squad at just 16, the moniker of “Mini Messi” was bestowed upon the gifted attacking midfielder.
But it could hardly have placed more unrealistic expectations on one of the brightest prospects Scottish football has seen in many years. As Scotland manager Gordon Strachan observed earlier this year, whoever came up with it was almost indulging in a form of child cruelty.
Despite the consistent flurry of speculation linking Gauld with almost every major English club, he took the considered decision in the summer to join Sporting Lisbon. Life in Portugal proved initially difficult for the Laurencekirk youngster but he is now enjoying the relative anonymity it has provided as he continues his development with Sporting’s B team who play in the country’s Second Division.
His progress has already been good enough for Strachan to hand him his maiden senior Scotland call-up for the Euro 2016 qualifiers against Georgia on Saturday and Poland next Tuesday.
“I’m really glad that I’m away from the hype which surrounded me,” says Gauld. “I’d only played just a few games for United when there were rumours and stories about other clubs being interested. It didn’t really affect me but it was beyond belief it was happening after just a couple of games.
“I’ve managed to escape from the ‘Mini Messi’ tag which I’m quite glad of. It was a little bit strange and came about just because I’m small and left-footed. That’s the comparison and again it was made only after about four or five games for United.
“To be over in Portugal now and starting again is really good for me. The main reason I chose to go abroad was the style of football is something I’ve always really liked. I also wanted to learn another language and see how things are done elsewhere. To be honest, I was a bit homesick to begin with. I missed my family and friends, but now I’ve been there a few months, I’m dealing with it fine. I knew before I signed for Sporting that I’d miss everyone, but I also knew that I could deal with it long-term.”
Just 230 spectators watched Gauld’s most recent appearance for Sporting B, a 2-1 win over Trofense on Sunday which left them in ninth place in the 24-team Portuguese Second Division, from which they are not eligible for promotion, along with the B teams of Benfica, Porto and Braga. But the 18-year-old is more than content with the environment in which he is currently operating.
“The Second Division is not a big thing in Portugal,” adds Gauld. “Our B team games don’t have huge attendances, there is no focus on it from the media. At the same time, there is no pressure on you from the stands.
“It’s a very good standard and every team plays a passing game. It’s maybe a wee bit more aggressive than the top league. By playing in the B team, I’m getting used to the club and the football. We’ll take it slowly and see when the time is right for me to get into the first team.
“It’s a great way to play football. Everything is based on passing from the back and building attacks. Most of the team can speak English, which is good for me until I improve my Portuguese, which I have lessons in every day after training.
“They have been great helping me out and making sure that, if I need anything, I have someone to ask. I live in a flat on my own, close to the training ground which is handy.
“The biggest difference I’ve noticed is the intensity of training. In Scotland, you get a lot of time off, but in Portugal there are fewer days off. It’s great for individual development. I do notice that, physically, I’m a lot sharper and the individual programmes have brought me on.
“The training at United was great but, at Sporting, it is a lot more demanding and no-one gets away with not giving 100 per cent in every session.”
Gauld admits his form for Jackie McNamara’s side shaded in the second half of last season when he was not a regular in the starting line-up every week. It prompted him to seek ways of self-improvement he is still pursuing.
“I knew I wasn’t playing as well as I could,” he says. “I like to set high standards for myself so I tried different ways to address why it just wouldn’t click for me as it had done at the start of the season.
“But then I realised I’m still young and maybe that’s just something that’s going to happen, a dip in form.
“I tried to do work in the gym on the physical side of things to try to help me counteract what I was coming up against. I also looked at whether it was a tactical or mental thing.
“I came to the conclusion that I was getting man-marked more, so that was down to the tactical side and learning how to deal with it. There was the physical side as well, so there were a few reasons I found.
“I’m still addressing some of them. I’m doing a lot of work and as far as international football goes, the physical side is really important. So I still need to improve on that.”
Gauld believes he is ready to make a contribution for Scotland if called upon by Strachan for either of the forthcoming fixtures but concedes his call-up came sooner than anticipated.
“It did surprise me a little bit,” he added. “I was away with the under-21s last month and we had a couple of decent results but I was still surprised to get into the senior squad this time. But I’m delighted to get this chance and being beside English Premier League players can only help me.
“There is proof that if you work hard in training with Scotland, the manager is not afraid to throw people into games. He showed that with Andy Robertson. If you train well, you have as good a chance as anyone.
“If I’m picked, I’ll be ready. We’ve prepared the whole week for this. I’ve dreamed about a Scotland call-up for a long time so I feel that I’m ready. At the end of the day, you don’t know when a chance like this will come for you again so you have to make the most of it.”