AS A boy my summer holidays were spent in Kincardineshire and on the car journey north certain rituals were observed. The only music came in eight-track-cartridge form, and only the soundtrack to the naked hippie musical Hair!
The pitstop, in time to halt the fighting and wailing in the back seat, was always Arbroath’s Milk Meadow Bar. And this would be preceded by my father, surveying the public parks from Dundee to just beyond, all of them hectic with organised juvenile football endeavour, remarking without fail: “Hotbed of talent!”
This was a few years before the New Firm of Aberdeen and Dundee United so the old man would like to think he was stunningly prophetic. Then, long after the Mearns hols had stopped, we were passing the same pitches and they were empty. Had even this fitba’-daft corner fallen victim to the dreaded multi-yoof-option curse? Now, I realise both views are a bit too cute. Not every member of the New Firm was a product of the region and just because this parched and bumpy grass was lying idle didn’t mean the latest talent wasn’t gamboling across shiny synthetic surfaces somewhere else. Still, I was thrilled when I read this headline the other day: “From Laurencekirk to Lisbon”.
Thrilled because Laurencekirk is a stranger to two inch high headlines, even in the Mearns Leader. Thrilled because here was proof that out of the county’s rich red soil, highly-gifted young footballers can still sprout. Thrilled because despite the slightly unnerving sight of Ryan Gauld in green-and-white hoops in the accompanying photo, the Tannadice prodigy hadn’t just signed for Celtic – no offence – but had swerved past all of the traditional destinations for provincial whizz-kids and decided to try his luck in Portugal.
It looks like a fantastic move. I know this is the silly season in newspapers, with all the football action happening far, far away from Scotland, but the transfer has been given the the big licks it seems to deserve. The SPL’s most precocious footballer joining a glamorous European club. But it’s more than that: Sporting Lisbon have the academy culture and young Gauld – the Gaulden Boy – gives the impression he will be the most willing of pupils. What’s not to like?
Of course he will be a loss to our game come mid-November and we search for a cheering feint or shimmy in the gloom, but let him go and learn and pick up good habits and come back an even better player, much like Maurice Johnston when the latter went to Nantes in 1987. Because we were unable to keep up with his progress in French football, the transformation in Johnston’s game seemed all the more dramatic when he turned out for Scotland, not least in a terrific win over France at Hampden. A natural goal-grabber, he was suddenly quicker, more dynamic, cleverer. He vowed he would never return to our league but then he couldn’t resist Celtic – and five minutes after that he couldn’t resist Rangers.
Johnston was 24 when he went continental; Gauld is 18. But the imp imperial in United’s midfield has been saying for long enough – not that anything further back than 18 is very long at all – that his ambition was to move abroad. Both Gauld and Sporting Lisbon seem to have chosen well. When Garry O’Connor left Scotland he went for the Lokomotiv Moscow loot. O’Connor won a car for scoring a cup-winning goal but Gaz and flash motors were always a tricky combination. Gauld, compared to O’Connor, seems to have his head screwed on the right way. I’d be shocked to learn he has a tattoo, not counting one of those peelable transfers given away free with Dundee-produced comics.
Johnston going to France seemed a bold move though we should remember that Ray Stephen (Nancy) and Eric Black (Metz) got there before him. But at other times there has been a frustratingly high number of Scottish footballers who have seemed to like their mammy’s home-made tattie soup too much to try a different country.
The trailblazers were Denis Law and Joe Baker, the latter being technically English but an adopted Scot after his tremendous scoring feats at Hibs. These two had each other at Torino, did everything together including crashing an Alfa Romeo, and for that reason maybe didn’t integrate as well as each would have been required to do, had they tried spaghetti for the first time alone. Their time in Serie A was brief but they returned better strikers for having had to confront catenaccio every week.
Graeme Souness and Steve Archibald, very much their own men, seemed better fits when they ventured to Italy and Spain respectively. Souness’s time at Sampdoria is part of our game’s myths and legends. Early on, maybe even his first game, he lined up in the tunnel next to Argentina’s World Cup-winning captain Daniel Passarella who promptly kicked him. Souness, being Souness, kicked him straight back. Back on Scotland duty, his newly-acquired fancy foreign ways intrigued his team-mates – the strident colognes, the three (three!) settings on his hairdryer. Kenny Dalglish, who didn’t play abroad, is supposed to have wondered if he was gay.
Derek Riordan, another who made his reputation with Hibee goals, had the chance to go to the Bundesliga but opted for Celtic – a move which stalled his career. Later, apparently out of desperation, he went to China but struggled with the culture and especially the food. He lived off Subways until an Italian team-mate took pity and cooked him pasta for his tea. But, as he told me last year, official club nights in restaurants would see him faced with “chicken that was basically running aboot” and on another occasion “chicken feet, what I was told was frog and other no’ right stuff”.
Deek tells a good story, told these ones in part against himself, and isn’t your average daft footballer. But he’s a homeboy.
Around the same time a few Scots tried Turkey. These were late-career moves, one last or close-to-last big payday. Allan McGregor stuck it out the longest, Kris Boyd only playing 76 minutes of Turkish football and Michael Stewart no minutes at all. None of these moves can compare with that of Gauld, just a boy, who will be well rewarded but is asking that Sporting Lisbon teach him things he’d never learn squaring up to Jim Goodwin four times a season, so that he can return a man with all that potential fulfilled.
Among our most successful fitba’ emigrés have been John Collins and Paul Lambert. Maybe Gauld shares some of Collins’ poise, ambition and questing nature – and maybe, if you’re looking for a stunning move to compare with Dundee United to Sporting Lisbon, you would choose Lambert’s Motherwell to Borussia Dortmund. But all of these guys were older than Gauld, just 18 but looking even younger. Let’s hope he learns as much about positioning for deep-lying midfield as Lambert did. And – remembering the latter’s “Thank’s fans” banner when he left Germany – even more about positioning for deep-lying apostrophes. Not just all of Laurencekirk but all of Scotland should wish the lad well.