FOOTBALL has a habit of pulling the rug from under you. Dundee United teenager Ryan Gauld was being touted for a big-money move abroad a few months ago and ended up being dumped on the bench for the Scottish Cup final after a loss of form.
But far from complaining about his disappointing end to the season, the Scotland under-19 midfielder says Tannadice manager Jackie McNamara was right to leave him out of the starting XI which lost to St Johnstone at Parkhead.
Gauld, who has pledged to work harder next season to rediscover his electrifying form, was one of the main bright spots of Scotland U19s’ disappointing showing in the UEFA European Under-19 Championship elite round last week. The Scots drew 0-0 with Ukraine but lost 2-1 to England and 1-0 to Montenegro.
International duty proved a pick-me-up for 18-year-old Gauld, who admits he suffered a slump in form for his club in the second half of the season.
He said: “It’s been up and down for me. We had a good start to the season and I got a run of games. But since Christmas I’ve struggled for form. I’m not one to accept being OK. I want to play at my best and if I’m not then I’m self-critical. I know the second half of the season hasn’t been good enough on my part so I need to get my head down and keep working.
“I like to watch games back so I can get an idea of what I’ve done and where I can improve, looking at the little parts of my game that I can work on.
“The cup final obviously wasn’t a great day. To come away with Scotland is an honour in itself so I didn’t feel like I needed a lift. The [cup final] day was a huge disappointment.
“It was disappointing not to start, but I can’t have any complaints because of my form before that. It was disappointing for the fans as well because they turned up in great numbers and we didn’t perform like we can.
“I’ll work hard over the summer so I’m ready to go for pre-season. Hopefully by the start of the season I’ll be flying. That’ll be down to what I do in this month off. The work I put in will impact how I do at the start of the season.”
Gauld rejects suggestions that the hype placed on a youngster tagged with the nickname of “Baby Messi” has affected his game. And he believes his talented Tannadice team-mates have helped reduce the pressure on him.
He said: “It’s not been too bad, as I’m in a team with some top young players like Stuart Armstrong and Andy Robertson.
“The hype has been spread out. I just try and enjoy my football and not play under any pressure.
“John Souttar has been brilliant too. Some people have said the defensive side of the game isn’t his strongest point, but he was unbelievable over the games down in England.
“Some of the criticism has been ridiculous. He’s a relaxed guy and to be criticised for it is crazy. He’s a laid back guy who takes it in his stride. He doesn’t let it change him.”
Gauld revealed he has been working on the physical nature of his game and a highlight in the past week was in the opening game against Ukraine, where he actually outmuscled a defender.
And while he is never going to be a giant, Gauld admits he will work hard on that side of his game.
He said: “At Dundee United we have a strength and conditioning programme. We do that twice a week and I feel I’ve come on a lot since going full-time. I pushed someone off the ball against Ukraine and that’s probably the first time I’ve ever done that! I wouldn’t expect it to happen very often.
“I try to work on my game so that the physical side doesn’t come into it, by evading defenders. I don’t come into contact with them so the physicality doesn’t show as much, but I do need to improve on that front so I can stand up to it. Football’s a contact sport and you will come shoulder to shoulder with people.”
Scotland can take plenty of encouragement from their unlucky 2-1 defeat by England last week, just a year after they were hammered 3-0 by the Auld Enemy at the same stage in Belgium.
Gauld insisted: “It was a huge improvement from a year ago. Last year we weren’t in the game at all. They battered us for 90 minutes.
“This time we got the ball a lot more, passed it about reasonably and created a few more openings.
“The England players are all big, strong boys. We feel we matched them in terms of ability, but they overpowered us a wee bit. I think it’s an area young Scottish players need to improve in.
“It seems to be the big difference between us. The stature and pace of their players is striking. There’s no great difference technically. It’s something we can work on and it will close the gap a fair bit.”