Ryan Gauld: What happened to former wonderkid dubbed 'the Scottish Messi'?
Vancouver is a long way from Scotland, and an even longer way from Barcelona. In many ways, Canada seems a world away from those two locales, and that's before you get into any talk of footballing history.
But it's in the Pacific Northwest you can find the player once dubbed 'the Scottish Messi', Ryan Gauld, tearing up MLS defenses. He's been there for nearly two years now, showing some of the attributes that, in his youth, saw him compared to arguably the sport's greatest ever player.
Those comparisons came when he was a teenager, when the weight of the world was tossed onto his shoulders by a country dying out for a star. They dubbed him the next Messi, but few thought he could ever live up to that label, because who could? He'd at least be the next Kenny Dalglish, though, right? Maybe the next Denis Law?
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In the end, Gauld hasn't become the hero Scotland has cried out for, at least not yet. After experiencing setback after setback throughout Europe, he's seemingly found a home far from home, a place where he can express himself without that pressure surrounding him.
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The start of it all
Gauld's professional career began at Dundee United, where he joined the youth system at the age of nine, but his real breakthrough came seven years later when he rapidly shot to superstardom.
Gauld (above right) made his Scottish Premier League debut in May 2012, coming on at just 17 years old to replace Johnny Russell; a player that he would, coincidentally, meet again in MLS. He made his first start one year later, scoring his first goal that same day against St Johnstone to help the Tangerines to a 1-1 draw.
By the end of 2013, the world was starting to take notice. Reports frequently linked Gauld with the Premier League, with then-Manchester United manager David Moyes personally scouting the youngster, according to reports. Everton, Liverpool, Roma, Real Madrid were also all linked with the young attacking midfielder.
Gauld quickly became Scottish football's darling, as his presence at Tannadice actually overshadowed a player that would eventally reach the very top of world football: Andrew Robertson. But, during their time at Dundee United, it was Gauld, not Robertson, that was tipped to be the player winning major trophies someday.
Why 'the Scottish Messi'?
During his rise, Gauld was quickly compared to Messi, with scouts pointing to his ability to glide while in possession. His diminutive size didn't hurt either as, even now at 27, Gauld stands at just 5'6 (168cm).
From an early age, Gauld showed all the makings of a true No.10. In many ways, he wasn't the type of player cut out for the physical, in-your-face style Scottish football. Gauld was more modern, more creative.
In his final season at Dundee United, he scored eight goals in 38 appearances in all competitions before making a big move to Sporting CP in Portugal, a country that would seemingly provide a style of play more compatible with Gauld's game.
It also offered him a chance to escape the hype that was building in home country, where the 'Scottish Messi' moniker was beginning to take on a life of its own.
"I’ve managed to escape from the ‘Mini Messi’ tag – and I’m quite glad of it," he told the Telegraph after moving to Portugal. "It was a little bit strange and it came about just because I’m small and left-footed. That’s the comparison and again it was made only after about four or five games for United.”
- Getty Images
Gauld's big move
Gauld's move to Sporting saw him sign a six-year contract in Lisbon that included a €60 million buyout clause, with the club's history of developing youngsters the main reason as to why he chose Portugal over other options.
"Sporting have got a good track record with really good, young players - Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani all came from here - so I knew they must have the coaches to develop world-class players," Gauld told Match of the Day magazine.
Nani, as it turns out, was a huge influence on Gauld, as the two overlapped at the club while the ex-Manchester United man was on loan during the 2014-15 season.
"Nani's been brilliant with me," Gauld said. "After training, he's making sure everything's good and even in training he's making sure I'm fully concentrated."
However, life in Portugal ultimately wouldn't be as smooth as Gauld would have hoped.
- AFP PHOTO/ PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA (Photo credit should read PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Struggles with Sporting
Gauld initially joined Sporting B, despite being named to the club's 25-man squad for the Champions League shortly after arriving. He made his debut for the B-team in August 2014, replacing current Fulham star Joao Palhinha in a loss to Farense.
He debuted for the first team that December in a Taca da Liga game and was named Man of the Match in a 1-0 win against Boavista in the same competition. By the end of his first season, Gauld would score two goals in five appearances for Sporting's senior team, but those would be the only appearances he'd ever make for the club.
Over the next several years, Gauld would undertake a series of loans across Portugal and, ultimately, back to Scotland, spending time with Vitoria de Setubal, Aves, Farense and Hibernian. In total, he made just 52 appearances across those four loan spells. His time with Hibernian, notably, was cut short due to a hamstring injury, limiting him to just six games back in his homeland.
In July 2019, Sporting decided to cut ties, with Gauld leaving to join Farense in Portugal's second tier.
Finding form with Farense
Gauld immediately hit the ground running in the second division, and just ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic, Gauld was in the form of his career, as he scored his first hat-trick in February 2020 as part of a run of six goals in seven games.
When the league was put on hold due to the pandemic, Farense were awarded promotion to the top flight as they sat top of the league, with Gauld as their top scorer with nine goals in 21 matches.
He scored nine once again the next season back in the Portuguese top flight before Vancouver came calling, offering a major life change.
Vancouver comes calling
In 2021, the Vancouver Whitecaps were in need of a star, someone that could win them games. Their search, ultimately, brought them to Gauld, who had proven himself a difference-maker with Farense.
The move wasn't easy, as a contract dispute with Farense complicated the deal. Then there were work permits and quarantine requirements to settle all before Gauld even arrived.
“There was plenty of mishaps that came along the way, but it never entered my head that it was a sign to say I was making the wrong decision," Gauld said. "Since I arrived, I know I 100 percent made the right decision. Everything the club’s got, the potential. I made the right decision."
The Whitecaps, having ultimately got their guy, intended to build around him. Gauld signed a three-and-a-half year deal upon joining the club, with both sides committing to working together for the long-term.
“The whole search was always about finding a player who fits the profile not only for this season, but the future," said sporting director and CEO Axel Schuster. "That helps us lift the quality of the team, take the next step. We’ve spoken very often that we need this link player, we think that was a missing piece.
He added: "This is a deal structured in a way that he should stay here for long and help this team for long.”
In that first half season in MLS, Gauld provided a glimpse into what he could offer the team, scoring six goals in all competitions.
The 2022 season was the Scottish star's first full campaign in MLS, and Gauld's statistics were as solid as can be. He fell just short of the double-digit goals and assists club, scoring eight goals while providing nine assists.
His big moments, however, came in the Canadian Championship, as he helped lead the Whitecaps to their second major honour in club history.
The Whitecaps defeated Valour FC, Cavalry FC and York United en route to the final, where they took on Toronto FC. Goals from Brian White and Lukas MacNaughton saw the scoreline finish 1-1, sending the game to penalty kicks. Gauld netted the first for the Whitecaps in what ended up being a 5-3 shootout triumph, with Vancouver hoisting the cup on their home field.
In the end, Gauld was recognized with the George Gross Memorial Trophy as the tournament's best player. Across the four games, Gauld was credited with two assists while playing a part in the build up to all but one of the Whitecaps' six goals.
Style of play
With the Whitecaps, Gauld is a more modern No.10 in a league where old-school No.10s continue to thrive.
MLS is one of the few leagues in the world that still utilises old-school playmakers, who contribute little defensively, stroll around the field and pick passes all over the field. Gauld is not that, but more of an all-action attacking playmaker, more like what we see in the modern game in Europe.
Playing for a Vancouver team that is far from the most talented in MLS, Gauld runs and runs, but also sets up goals at a rate comparable with the top playmakers in MLS. A lack of finishing around him has hurt his numbers at times, but the stats are certainly still there.
Gauld is a mix of blue collar Scottish energy and pure class, a perfect fit for a Vancouver team that is still being built around him and his abilities.
Despite all of the hype that surrounded him in his home country, Gauld never actually played for Scotland's senior team, and even with his success in MLS, he hasn't been invited to Scotland's senior setup. In October, Gauld admitted he hasn't heard from the Scottish FA in years.
However, there is another option potentially there if Gauld wants it: Canada.
The midfielder would, theoretically, be eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship should he play out the entirety of his contract with the Whitecaps and could be integrated by the time the 2026 World Cup rolls around on home soil. In an interview with the Away from the Numbers podcast, he admitted it is an idea worth considering.
"You can never say never, I've not actually thought about it, but who knows what is going to happen in the future," he said. "I'm not looking at forcing my way into the Scotland set-up. If it happens, it happens, if not we'll see where it is in a few years and what will be will be.
"What's refreshing is that at the end of a season, I know where I am going to be next season. There's not a lot of times that has happened to me in my career."
And Gauld still knows that he has a lot of career left. He's only 27, after all, and despite the fact that he's been on the scene for a decade, the midfielder still hasn't reached his prime years.
He almost certainly won't live up to the nickname bestowed upon him as a young man and he may never become the hero Scottish football expected him to be, but it seems Gauld is building a nice little career for himself after spending so many years fighting others' expectations.
“It feels like I’ve been around for ages because of the places I’ve been to," he told the Sunday Mail. "But I still feel I’ve got loads left in me. I’d like to think I’ve got 10 years to go."
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