If Hibs can get a loan deal for Ryan Gauld over the line in the coming days, it will represent a much-needed boost for their supporters amid a demoralising opening to 2019.
With disappointment lingering from the Edinburgh derby defeat that left them eighth in the Scottish Premiership as 2018 came to a close, the new year has got off to the worst possible start, with Martin Boyle, their best attacker this season, lost to injury and Efe Ambrose, their best player this season, having invoked a clause allowing him to leave the club. Urgent squad rejuvenation is required via the January transfer window. In that regard, the news that Gauld could be on his way to Easter Road has to be viewed as a positive development.
Hibs have been monitoring the 23-year-old former Dundee United player closely in recent months and are hopeful of landing him for the remainder of the season. All going to plan, he could be in Edinburgh within a matter of days. On paper, Gauld looks to be the perfect signing for Hibs at this point. He boasts previous experience of the Scottish Premiership, where he was a standout player in his teens; he has been playing regularly in Portugal in recent months, so will have no issues with match fitness after the winter break; he offers creativity from the No.10 position, a commodity Hibs have been lacking this season; and, like several young Scottish midfielders who have excelled at Easter Road over the past few seasons, he would arrive in Leith eager to bolster a reputation in need of some fresh sheen.
As is well-documented, Gauld was deemed one of the hottest prospects in Europe five years ago when he illuminated Scotland’s top flight as a fearless teenager in a swashbuckling Dundee United side. Although his career hasn’t ignited the way many had hoped since he joined Sporting Lisbon as an 18-year-old on a lucrative six-year contract in summer 2014, it hasn’t been a disaster either. Since a promising first season with the Portuguese heavyweights, when he made all five of his first-team appearances before a string of managerial changes counted against him, Gauld’s game time has come in Sporting’s B team in the country’s second division or in three separate loan spells which brought varying degrees of satisfaction. The first at Primeira Liga side Setúbal in 2016/17 was going well enough until Sporting’s owner bizarrely decided to recall him early in protest at the fact Setúbal had knocked his team out of the cup. His second loan stint, with Desportivo Aves, another Portuguese top-flight side, afforded him more than 20 appearances last season, although two managerial changes ultimately resulted in game time diminishing and the move turning sour. This season has brought him regular football with Farense, albeit in the Segunda Liga, which doesn’t enjoy the level of exposure of second divisions in other leading European football nations.
To summarise the positives of his time since leaving United, Gauld has played a respectable 120 matches in Portugal’s top two divisions – 98 as a starter – and has appeared for three different top-flight clubs in a traditionally forward-thinking football nation. In addition, he has benefitted from the invaluable life experience of living in Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve from a relatively young age. Returning to Scotland just a month after his 23rd birthday was never part of the plan for Gauld, but he is conscious of the need to start accelerating his career and start making his presence felt consistently at the top level.
Having seen his former Dundee United colleagues and flat-mates John Souttar, 22, and Andy Robertson, 24, force their way into the Scotland squad, the little midfielder is eager to do likewise, and may view Hibs, with Neil Lennon at the helm, as the ideal club to help him restore his profile both in his homeland and further afield. John McGinn, Scott Allan, Fraser Fyvie and Dylan McGeouch were all of similar age to Gauld when they first arrived at Easter Road in need of some career reignition. All four duly departed either with a Scottish Cup winner’s medal and/or an enhanced reputation under their belt. Even allowing for his lack of top-level heroics in recent years, Gauld’s pedigree is still currently higher than any of the aforementioned quartet’s when they first joined Hibs under Alan Stubbs. A strong second half to this season in the Premiership, at a time when Scotland manager Alex McLeish isn’t averse to calling on home-based players, would help recast Gauld, a former Scotland Under-21 internationalist, as a player of substance a little over a year shy of the expiry of his long contract in Lisbon.
Although he hasn’t yet been able to reach the superstar levels predicted by many, Hibs will benefit from the drive of an ambitious and level-headed player eager to show that his raw quality, as showcased in his fleet-footed years at Tannadice, has been augmented with the knowledge and experience of playing 170 club matches – 130 as a starter – in what can largely still be considered the development phase of his career.