RYAN Gauld was an 11-year-old ballboy, standing on the track at Tannadice, when Barcelona came to town.
Lionel Messi had not travelled with the Spanish club, but they did have Xavi and Andres Iniesta in midfield, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o up front, as well as Thierry Henry on the bench.
After Henry’s late goal consigned Dundee United to defeat in an unlikely pre-season friendly, Gauld was among those who flooded on to the pitch in pursuit of an autograph. Most converged on Ronaldinho, although it could have been anybody’s scribble on the scrap of paper that the youngster took home with him that night.
Six years on, he still has it in his bedroom. These days, at the grand old age of 17, it is Gauld who is the star of Tannadice, and he who is signing the autographs, even if he hasn’t quite got the hang of them yet. “If I could keep things on the quiet side, that would be better, because my signature isn’t the best,” he says. “It needs a wee bit of work.”
Good luck with that. The hype surrounding Gauld is already into overdrive. The 5ft 5in prodigy describes as “laughable” repeated comparisons with Messi, but speculation linking him with the biggest clubs in Europe suggests otherwise. Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Real Madrid and Juventus are on a list that seems to be growing by the week.
Gauld, who is the SPFL’s Young Player of the Month for November, is keen to remain in Dundee for the moment but, after his stunning start to the season, the question is not whether he will move, but when, and to where? Even Gauld admits that he has given it some thought, and the bad news for England is that the Barclays Premier League is not among his preferences.
“When I was growing up, I watched the Spanish leagues and prefer the style of that, getting the ball down and being patient with the build-up play. In England, it’s maybe more direct. If you are a winger, you are expected to take on a full-back and get a cross in. If it’s abroad, you can turn out, keep the ball and just keep the attack going.”
Although he missed Barcelona’s other recent visit to Tannadice – when Messi’s hat-trick contributed to a 5-1 victory in 2008 – he regularly watches the little Argentine, together with his diminutive club-mates, on television. In so doing, he has developed an affection for La Liga, and for foreign football in general, which he says suits not just his game, but his build.
“Abroad, you see more players who are smaller in stature. In England, it’s more athletes. Me being a smaller guy, I need to think about what’s best for me and what’s best around me. I think being abroad is the best culture of football for me.”
Many of Gauld’s highly-rated predecessors moved to England at the first opportunity, only to disappear almost without trace. Gauld insists that, if a big Premier League club comes calling, as one or more surely will in the months ahead, he will not let money or impatience influence his decision.
“I’ve got to think what’s best for me, even four or five years down the line. If I was to go down there, I’d have to think what my chances are of first-team football. If I was stuck in the reserves, how much would I enjoy that? I can’t just think: ‘It’s a big club, so I’ll jump at the chance to sign for them’.”
They all say that, of course, but, according to Dundee United manager Jackie McNamara, Gauld is different. He is mature and level-headed enough to understand the implications of his first big decision in football. “That’s what will separate him from most other young players,” says McNamara.
For all his talents, Gauld’s character could set him apart. While the Messi parallel refers to their size, their position, their low centre of gravity and their ability to see passes and possibilities that others don’t, it is also worth noting that neither player is affected by ego.
Take, for instance, the way they both react to heavy tackles, bouncing back to their feet as though nothing had happened. Gauld regards them as a compliment. “He doesn’t sulk or complain,” says McNamara. “He gets up and gets on with it. That’s a great thing to see in a young player.”
Then there is the sense of adventure that Gauld so admires in Messi. “He is a player I look up to because he’s the best in the world. Every young boy should be watching him and trying to emulate him. Don’t be an ordinary person. Go and try something special.”
And, of course, natural talent means nothing without commitment. While Gauld’s brother, Jamie, who was also a promising footballer, is happy to be playing for the local pub team, Ryan’s emergence coincides with that of another sought-after United youngster, John Souttar. They have been friends and team-mates since they were nine-year-olds at Brechin City.
“Maybe it is just a bit of luck, but John and I have always worked very hard at our game and always tried to better ourselves. We have never settled for just being good at something. We have always strived for being very, very good at something. Not just something, your whole game.”
Gauld’s biggest asset might just be his humility. Just as they demand it on and off the pitch at Barcelona, so is the lad from Laurencekirk happy to be collecting balls after training and doing the dishes in his digs.
“A lot of it comes from the upbringing,” says McNamara. “A lot of it stems from the parents. To be honest, the amount of speculation that he’s had over the last couple of months, you can imagine, it could go to some boys’ heads. But the good thing is it doesn’t affect him.”
A trawl through Gauld’s early years reveals a down-to-earth, respected lad who looked out for those around him. It is no coincidence that, for all his gifts, he is similarly selfless on the pitch. He has all the tricks but is not interested in making himself look good. His priority is the pass that will serve the team-mate alongside him, as well as the team-mate after that.
McNamara says that he has never come across a player with such awareness. Gauld says he learned it from Ian Cathro, the coach who worked at a Dundee football clinic before becoming head of United’s youth academy.
“He [Cathro] was always saying that you need to see not just the pass that you are going to play but, when that person receives the ball, what they can do with it. A lot of nights, we would just work on awareness, just knowing what’s about you. It’s a key part of my game. It’s all about making life easier for your team-mate. If you can play the right weight of pass, so that he’s got an option when he receives it, it’s going to be a great help for your team.”
Gauld keeps in touch with Cathro, who is now on the backroom staff at Portuguese club Rio Ave. Gauld admits that he is inspired by the Scot’s success abroad, which is perhaps another clue as to where his ambitions lie.
“It makes you think outside the box,” says Gauld. “If you get outside of Britain, who knows where you can go?”