Stephen Halliday: United the best place for Gauld

Ryan Gauld will benefit from using the stability provided at Dundee United to develop his talent. Picture: SNS
Ryan Gauld will benefit from using the stability provided at Dundee United to develop his talent. Picture: SNS
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DUNDEE United supporters must be wishing 2013 would never end. On the face of it, no group of fans should be relishing the second half of this season more.

But the fast-approaching January transfer window will be regarded with a sense of dread by many of those who have been savouring the free-scoring football being produced by Jackie McNamara’s vibrant team.

Tannadice is currently a magnet to English Premier League scouts, drawn by the increasingly irresistible form of the teenage terrors in a United side emerging as one of the most entertaining and watchable in Scottish football for several years.

Weekend reports that Manchester United are hardening their interest in United’s headline act, the exceptionally gifted attacking midfielder Ryan Gauld, will have increased anxiety among those of a tangerine persuasion that their first-hand enjoyment of his talent may be all too short-lived.

But there is hope for the United support that Gauld, who will celebrate his 18th birthday in a fortnight, may remain at Tannadice until the end of the season at least.

For as well as possessing a natural footballing ability which, for once, justifies most of the hype surrounding him, it seems that Gauld is also a gratifyingly sensible and grounded individual whose head is unlikely to be turned by all the attention he receives.

When United recently extended his contract until the summer of 2016, it clearly provided them with the assurance of adequate compensation should they lose him to the bright lights of English football. But Gauld’s willingness to sign a new deal was also an indication of his own awareness that he has no need to depart in haste.

Happily, he felt no urge to follow the example of several other highly-touted Scottish youngsters of recent seasons who upped sticks and sped south of the border with almost indecent haste before their clubs could tie them down on longer-term contracts.

United suffered previously, for example, when the promising Scott Allan moved to West Bromwich ­Albion two years ago. A teenage debutant for the Tannadice club, the ­midfielder has failed to make a single first-team appearance for West Brom.

Two loan spells at Portsmouth either side of a temporary stint with MK Dons have been followed by going on loan to Birmingham this season. He has just turned 22 and his career shows little sign of real progress. He has not played for Birmingham since August and has recently been back in their under-21 development side.

While players like Allan cannot be blamed for enhancing their bank balances when the opportunity arises, it is perhaps a short-term gain when set against the absence of regular senior football at a crucial phase of their career trajectory.

There are similar tales to be told about some of the kids Aberdeen have lost in comparable circumstances. Jack Grimmer made his first-team debut for the Dons at the age of 16 but they lost him to Fulham for just £200,000. The defensive midfielder will be 20 next month and has not played in a senior game since his last outing for Aberdeen in May 2011.

Being an unused substitute in an FA Cup-tie is the closest Grimmer has come to first-team football at Fulham where he plays for the under-21 side at their Motspur Park training ground.

Fraser Fyvie, another 16-year-old first-team debutant for Aberdeen, slipped from their grasp when he joined Wigan Athletic for £500,000. The midfielder, who will be 21 in March, is now the proud owner of an FA Cup winner’s medal as an unused substitute when Wigan shocked ­Manchester City at Wembley this year. But Fyvie tasted just 21 minutes of ­Premier League football as Wigan were relegated and this season has been loaned out to Yeovil Town.

That is not to suggest that moving to England at an early age is necessarily a career dead end, nor that Allan, Grimmer and Fyvie cannot yet fulfil the potential they showed in Scottish football.

There are more positive examples of the trend, such as Ryan Fraser. His decision to quit Aberdeen, where he was yet another 16-year-old breakthrough boy, and join then League One outfit Bournemouth last January attracted much criticism. But Fraser, who will be 20 in February, helped them achieve promotion to the Championship where he is now ­enjoying regular first-team football.

The evidence of most reliable witnesses so far points to the fact Gauld is a superior talent to any of the aforementioned players. But could he expect to be playing first-team football any time soon if he opted to join one of England’s “big four” clubs?

Islam Feruz, the exciting Somali-born youngster who left Celtic for Chelsea more than two years ago, is just three months older than Gauld.

He has yet to make a first-team appearance for the Stamford Bridge club, although Jose Mourinho did involve him in their pre-season Far East tour this year. Gauld is thriving in his present environment, where he is adored by the United fans and is being developed expertly by McNamara’s impressively astute management. Along with central defender John Souttar and Andrew Robertson, he is being given the ­platform to express his ability and learn his trade at first-team level.

The ideal scenario for McNamara would be to retain Gauld for at least another 18 months, perhaps even having the player loaned back to United as part of any deal which is struck with one of his suitors. Gauld himself is understood to favour a move to Spain, Italy or France when the time comes. His awareness, technique, ­decision-making, eye for goal and ability to ride a tackle should allow him to flourish anywhere.

But hopefully that can wait a while longer. If United chairman Stephen Thompson holds his nerve in January, then it is not just his club’s fans who will benefit from being able to watch Gauld in action, it is everyone in a Scottish game which has been bereft of such genuine talent for so long.