After four-and-a-half years in Portugal, Ryan Gauld is entitled to feel he is returning to Scotland as a significantly improved player.
The highly-regarded playmaker was only 18 when he left his homeland in 2014 amid a wave of hype following an exhilarating start to his career with Dundee United. Having spent the intervening period living in Lisbon and learning his trade predominantly with Sporting, Hibs, who last week signed Gauld on loan until the end of the season, look set to benefit from a player who will have added plenty to his armoury, both as a person and a footballer, since he last graced Scotland’s top flight a little less than five years ago.
Former Rangers, Wolves and Scotland defender Maurice Ross, pictured below, who has first-hand experience of playing abroad, has no doubt that Gauld will prove to be a significant upgrade on the raw but exciting attacker who illuminated Tannadice in his teenage years.
“The fact he went abroad so young tells you a lot about his mentality,” said Ross, who played in Norway, Turkey and China during the peak years of his career.
“To go away at 18; what a strong-minded wee guy. To go to such a big club as Sporting, he must have learned so much. He’s been exposed to a different culture, a different style of football, different training regimes and different characters. It’s all life experience, so I think you’ll see a much more rounded Ryan Gauld, a much more complete player, than the young lad that left Dundee United. I think it’s a fantastic signing for Hibs.”
Gauld returns to Scotland having recently turned 23. Although his career didn’t take off in the way many had hoped when he moved to Portugal, he already boasts significant experience at a time when he should still have most of his career ahead of him. “For Hibs to get him back at an age where he’s still got his best times to come, it’s a smashing signing,” said Ross.
“He’s an exciting young talent and I think everybody will be looking forward to seeing how much he’s progressed since he’s been away.
“By all accounts, he’s learned another language and I would say that just being in a different culture will have helped him. I think you’ll see a much more mature, more complete footballer.”
Ross believes that adapting back to the hustle-and-bustle, win-at-all-costs nature of Scottish football will be the toughest test for Gauld. “One of the big things that struck me about playing abroad is that the mentality was different,” he said. “For instance, they were much more forgiving to getting a draw. In British football, a draw can be seen as a disaster because everybody demands a win. People abroad seem much calmer than us. We’re always in fight-or-flight mode. I guess the big tests for him will be the tempo and maybe some of the poorer pitches in Scotland, in comparison to Portugal where most of the pitches will be like bowling greens. It will be interesting to see how he handles the rough-and-tumble of the Scottish game again.”
Ross has been watching plenty of Scottish football this season as he seeks a way back into the game following a spell as manager of Víkingur in the Faroe Isles last season. He has seen enough of Hibs, who sit eighth in the Ladbrokes Premiership, to suspect that Gauld will help improve them in the second half of the season.
“I’ve seen Hibs quite a few times this season and I like watching them,” said Ross. “They’ve been going through a wee sticky patch but they’ve still got the basis of a good team there. You need your strikers to be scoring but Hibs have got some good attacking players. It remains to be seen whether Gauld will play as a No. 10 or out wide and drifting in to link the play, but if you’re a striker at Hibs and you’ve got Ryan Gauld threading balls through to you, it’s only going to benefit your chances of scoring.”
Gauld isn’t the only young Scot who has spent time abroad in recent seasons. Former Hibs player Liam Henderson is currently with Italian Serie B side Hellas Verona, while Scotland defender David Bates is playing for German heavyweights Hamburg in Bundesliga 2. Ross, who first tried his luck abroad aged 27 when he left Millwall to sign for Norwegian side Viking, believes all Scottish players should consider broadening their horizons on foreign soil. “I think everybody should at least open their mind to the possibility of going abroad,” he said. “It’s also about having the possibility to go abroad. You can’t just up sticks and go, you need to be offered something. I think more boys are open to it now. Everywhere is connected by a flight now so it’s easier to get home in a few hours to see your family. It’s certainly something I would encourage but, at the same time, from a selfish point of view, I want all the best Scottish talent playing in Scotland so I can watch them. I’m not talking about them going to a Malta or anywhere like that, but the right environment – I’m talking Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, proper footballing nations that you’d learn from – I’d absolutely encourage it.”