Ryan Gauld, Hibs’ marquee January recruit, has only a maximum of eight games left in which to derive something worthwhile from his hitherto ill-fated loan stint in Edinburgh.
The Sporting Lisbon midfielder was signed by Neil Lennon to inject fresh spark and creativity into a misfiring Easter Road squad mired in the bottom six. For the 23-year-old himself, the move back to Scotland, following four-and-a-half years in Portugal, was viewed as an opportunity to replenish his reputation as one of the country’s outstanding midfield talents and force his way into the national team at a time when Alex McLeish hasn’t been slow to reward impressive performers in the domestic league.
The Scottish football public in general were intrigued to see how a player dubbed “Mini Messi” during his mesmerising teenage breakthrough years with Dundee United had developed during his time away from home.
With Scotland currently in Kazakhstan to begin their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign and Gauld working his way back towards full fitness after being sidelined since early February, it is safe to say this particular loan move has not gone to plan thus far.
Through no fault of his own, Gauld has found himself watching on from the sidelines for most of the past two months as his fellow January recruits Stephane Omeonga and Marc McNulty have emerged as the new darlings of Easter Road by spearheading the team’s surge up the table under Paul Heckingbottom. In just his fourth start for Hibs, at a time when they were under the caretaker charge of Eddie May and Grant Murray, Gauld suffered a grade-two hamstring tear in the 2-0 defeat away to Celtic on February 6. As a result, he has played no part in any of his team’s last seven games, five of which have brought victories. There can be no rushing back from an injury such as this one due to the increased risk of aggravating it, so Hibs and Gauld have had to take the recovery slowly and steadily.
Now closing in on a return to fitness, Gauld will be hopeful of earning a place on the bench when Hibs resume their league campaign away to Livingston next Friday. Given that the team have been motoring along nicely under Heckingbottom with a fairly settled group of midfielders, he is unlikely to go straight back into the starting lineup.
Although the form of central midfielders like Omeonga, Mark Milligan and Vykintas Slivka means there is no need to rush Gauld straight back into the team, the manager will be delighted simply to welcome a highly-regarded player back into match-day contention. For last Saturday’s victory over Motherwell, Marvin Bartley was the only bona fide senior player among the substitutes, with the other six all academy graduates aged 22 or younger. In short, Heckingbottom currently has a threadbare squad, so there should be an opportunity for Gauld to start making his presence felt in the weeks ahead.
Although he has already played five times in total for Hibs, including a promising debut against Elgin City, Gauld was unable to generate any genuine rhythm before his injuries, with three of his appearances coming during defeats against Motherwell, Aberdeen and Celtic.
The former Scotland Under-21 internationalist will be hoping the galvanising effect of Heckingbottom, which has raised the performance level of almost every player at the club so far, can help bring out the best in him. His relative versatility should help him in his quest to return to the side at the earliest opportunity as he can play in any of the midfield positions, either centrally or out wide. Depending how things go at Livingston next week, it is not beyond possibility that Gauld could be back in the starting lineup by the time of the home game against Kilmarnock in a fortnight.
In trying to make a belated impact at Easter Road, the Scot can look towards Omeonga for inspiration. The two players made their league debuts for Hibs on the same grim January night at Motherwell and both struggled to make much impact, with the Belgian substituted at half-time. Omeonga had to be patient as he waited for another chance but has been the team’s best player since returning to the starting lineup for the last three games. Fortunes can turn quickly in football. It remains to be seen if Gauld can enjoy the type of form spurt Omeonga has managed in order to salvage his loan move in the remaining two months of the season.
Natural logic would suggest there is a good chance the campaign will be as good as over by the time he rediscovers full fitness and form. But if Gauld can get back into the team and play a part in overhauling Hearts, and possibly even a late push for Europe, he could yet have the Hibs support talking about him once more in the same excitable tone that greeted his arrival.