Football, arguably more so than any other sport, has a compulsive need to compare young talents with those who have come before. There’s no getting away from it, and it’s likely everyone has made such observations.
It has become so ingrained in debates about the sport and players that perhaps we don’t even realise anymore, and many of ‘the greats’ will have been subject to precisely this phenomenon when setting out to establish themselves.
Lionel Messi is an obvious one – one of many Argentinian players to be dubbed the next Diego Maradona in his youth, it’s certainly arguable that the Barcelona great has gone on to surpass his compatriot.
But for every Messi there are hundreds of players who, for whatever reason, cannot live up to their early promise and the expectations dumped on their shoulders.
It seems such a harmless occurrence, to suggest an emerging player is comparable – at least stylistically – to an established superstar in conversation with friends, or even over Twitter.
But what we don’t tend to see is the other side, how those comparisons take root and spread, eventually spiralling out of control and impacting on the very player being discussed.
Ryan Gauld can attest to that.
Leo #Messi’s 15th minute assist to @kingarturo23 was his 20th of the season, tying him with Xavi for the all-time single season record in @LaLigaEN pic.twitter.com/Gnlf5BJA40
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) July 11, 2020
Now 24 and playing for Farense, who’ve just been promoted to Portugal’s Primeira Liga, Gauld is very familiar with such player comparisons and the adverse effect they can have.
Before joining Sporting CP on a long-term contract in 2014, Gauld had broken into the first team at Dundee United where he was first dubbed ‘mini Messi’ for his stature, dribbling ability and the fact he was left-footed. The comparisons began and ended there, but that was all it needed.
“To be honest, I wish it was never written,” he explains to Stats Perform News from his home in the Algarve. “What are the similarities between us? We’re small and left-footed, that’s about as far as you can go. I would’ve been more relaxed than I already was if it wasn’t a thing.”
For Gauld, the ‘mini Messi’ label became a stick to beat him with more than anything, ramping up the pressure after moving to Sporting – he was always expecting it to be tough to breakthrough in Lisbon, but being compared to an all-time great took its toll.
“I would be lying if I said it didn’t crop up in my head a couple of times. Like, as soon as people see me as that, they weren’t caring what I could do, what I was good at, they were looking to see why I was like Messi, and then if I couldn’t do something he could do, they’d say, ‘He’s rubbish, he’s not a mini Messi, he’s not worth that tag’, or whatever.”
The prominence of the ‘mini Messi’ tag grew to such an extent that Gauld doesn’t even think most people knew his actual name for his first two years in Lisbon.
“If they saw me walking about Lisbon or in a shopping centre, Sporting fans who wanted a photo or something, they’d shout ‘mini Messi’, they wouldn’t shout ‘Ryan’,” he recalls with an exasperated smile. “It makes you think how many people actually know your name – I was known as ‘mini Messi’ for about two years.”
Ryan Gauld nos melhores jogadores Sub-23 da revista @FourFourTwo! @ryangauld46 pic.twitter.com/4FlR8UdBlw
— Sporting Clube de Portugal (@Sporting_CP) January 24, 2015
A career interrupted
In the eyes of some, especially those who actually referred to him as ‘mini Messi’, Gauld’s career hasn’t quite panned out as might have been expected – he only managed two league appearances for Sporting’s senior side in five years, while loans with Vitoria Setubal, Desportivo Aves and Hibernian yielded little.
While he believes his struggles with certain expectations didn’t help, Gauld also harbours grievances with Sporting regarding his development, specifically their decision to terminate his loan with Setubal just when he had started to find his groove.
“It was my first shot in the top division. I found it difficult in the beginning to get a place in the team because they started really well and I didn’t start the season with the them, and then, I got an opportunity,” he said. “The manager was really happy with how I did and I think I played six or seven games on the bounce, and then we had Sporting in the cup.
“I was cup-tied, so couldn’t play, but we beat Sporting with a last-minute penalty to knock them out. The next day I received a call from one of the directors to say they were cancelling my loan agreement because we beat them. I think they took the huff a bit, so that was really frustrating.”
Another loan was set up, but after spending a month waiting up in the north of the country for clearance to begin training with his new team, he was told Setubal wouldn’t sign release papers – a return to Sporting’s B team beckoned. “That was the most frustrating part of my whole time here. I would’ve thought Sporting could have done more to make sure it went through, but no, nothing happened, no one apologised for anything that happened or gave any explanations. It wasn’t a very good time.”
O Sporting Clube Farense anuncia o acordo com o Sporting para o empréstimo de Ryan Gauld para as próximas 2 temporadas! pic.twitter.com/nGPUWHmXGj
— Sporting Clube Farense (@SCFarense_1910) July 15, 2019
A social media hiatus and a brighter outlook
After a disappointing return to Scotland with Hibs in January 2019, Gauld’s time with Sporting ended – a spell that promised so much finished with the former Scotland youth international barely making a splash.
But he wasn’t done with Portugal yet. While many would have expected him to head back to Scotland permanently, Gauld took the eyebrow-raising decision to drop a division, joining Farense on a two-year deal after the two parties left a strong impression on each other during a short loan spell in 2018.
His new-found happiness hasn’t only been influenced by on-field matters, though – turning his back on social media played a major role, particularly with respect to being able to detach himself from his ‘mini Messi’ demons.
“A year, a year and a bit I’ve been off social media, it’s made such a difference,” he explains. “You’re not seeing it [criticism], you’re not looking for it, looking for the negative energy that comes from it. I think that’s played a big role in me not thinking about it [the ‘mini Messi’ label] too much.
“There was a game on TV, and I played terrible, it’d be in my head, ‘Oh no, what are people going to be saying about me now?’ I don’t care what anyone says, it’s difficult if that comes up on your phone, it’s difficult to not read it.”
In 2019-20, Gauld scored nine league goals in 21 matches for Farense, making him their top-scorer as they secured a return to the top flight for the first time since 2001-02 – in the intervening seasons, they have sunk as far as the sixth tier.
Sporting will be the first match he looks out for when the fixture list is announced – like the returning Farense, Gauld has a score to settle in the Primeira Liga.
Published 16 Jul 2020, 12:30 IST