ST MIRREN’S latest recruit Esmael Goncalves has packed a fair bit into his time in Scotland – and it isn’t even two days since the 21-year-old stepped off a plane from Portugal to begin his four-month loan spell.
On Tuesday, the Paisley club’s manager Danny Lennon whisked the Rio Ave striker straight to Celtic Park to watch a 4-0 victory over Dundee United by the side he seems set to make his debut against come Sunday’s Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final.
Then yesterday, following a first training session, he was taken to a Scottish school as Lennon and group of his players conducted a question and answer with excited pupils from Achenlodmen Primary in Johnstone.
It is difficult to tell what Goncalves would have made of the experience, admirably handled with grace and good humour by the Paisley club’s manager. However, Lennon’s desire to involve his new man immediately was demonstrated by his directing a question to the bemused former Nice player as to what he would bring to St Mirren. Lennon also provided the answers – strength, goals and motivation. “What you bring to the school every day,” he told the gleeful youngsters.
Goncalves has set himself an even higher bar. Didier Drogba was the frontman’s hero growing up, his childhood spent in the Boavista youth system after he moved from Guinea-Bissau aged three. “I think I’m similar in style to him,” he said. “I like him a lot. When I was young I’d watched him play in every game for Marseille. I hope St Mirren have their own Didier Drogba now. I’m certainly ready to play and make a good impression.”
He has pitched up in Paisley as a result of the relationship that St Mirren’s game analysis coach Austin McPhee has with Rio Ave’s young Scottish coach Ian Cathro. Goncalves moved back to Portugal in the summer following two years in Nice’s senior set-up but limited first-team involvement – he has made eight appearances this season – accounts for his willingness to up sticks again.
“I’ve come to Scotland because I need more playing time. Ian told me a lot about Scottish football and said I had to get away and play games, score goals and return to Portugal a better player. He believes I have a future in Portugal.”
Lennon looks set to give Goncalves the opportunity to make an instant impact. “Steven Thompson has been incredible, like a few players in the team, and up until last week [with the 4-1 home loss to Ross County], collectively the performances have been great. But Stevie needs a helping hand, despite leading the line so well, as have Lewis Guy and big Sam Parkin.
“What Esmael will bring is a helping hand for, not only the strikers, but the whole group. I’ll only put him in on Sunday is if I feel he’ll improve the team. And we believe that or we wouldn’t have brought him to the club.
“He finds himself third or fourth choice with Rio Ave, having just taken Bebe on loan from Manchester United until the end of the season and also the Venezuelan captain Yonathan Del Va.
“That has made life difficult for Esmael but he’s got great experience and scored valuable goals so we’re absolutely delighted a move to Nice fell through and he’s given us a chance to bring him to Scotland.”
Goncalves grew up supporting Porto and added: “It’s such a big game on Sunday, it would be special to make my debut in it.
“I know all about Celtic and I remember they played Porto in the Uefa Cup final. I watched that match on TV in a bar in Porto. As a Porto supporter it was a big night for me. I have great memories of that match. I was happy that night and Celtic were disappointed – I hope it can be the same on Sunday.”
Lennon believes the capture of Goncalves shows St Mirren can think outside the box in their scouting.
“Every SPL club is fighting for the same young players, the same agents are giving us names so we’re delighted to be able to spread our wings and cast our net wide,” he said. “I also think teams are recognising that we can develop players. Look at Paul Dummett, who went back to Newcastle and played for them right away.”
St Mirren won’t get anything out of the trial period Legia Warsaw forward Patryk Mikita spent with them after the Polish club proved unwilling to extend it. But Lennon, who could have Kenny McLean in his side at Hampden with the midfielder making “progress” after a minor knee operation, has not given up on Dummett returning.
“I know Newcastle have signed a left back and they’re looking for another one. We’re not getting the answer we want on Paul Dummett in terms of Sunday, but we’re hopeful by the end of the January window. We’ve got a great relationship with Newcastle with Conor [Newton] coming in and we take pride in the fact Paul went back and made his full debut.”