ESMAEL Goncalves will likely never forget his first 24 hours in Scotland.
It involved taking in Celtic's league match against Dundee United at Celtic Park on Tuesday night, a morning training session with his new St Mirren team-mates, and then yesterday afternoon what would be described in the travel guidebooks as an "authentic local experience".
The pre-match build-up to this weekend's Scottish Communities League Cup semi-finals has involved managers and players from the four participating teams visiting local primary schools as part of the Wave of Support trophy tour. Yesterday it was St Mirren's turn to do their bit, Goncalves joining Danny Lennon, the Paisley side's manager, and a few of his new team-mates at Auchenlodment Primary School in Johnstone.
Standing in a school hall in front of 200 or so excited pupils and their teachers, a rabble of attendant media, and two giant panda mascots, this 21-year-old, Guinea-Bissau-born, Portuguese native could have been forgiven for wondering just what he had signed up for.
The short answer to that is regular football. A summer move to Rio Ave from Nice has not been the leap forward the player was hoping for, the recent arrival of Bebe on loan from Manchester United pushing him further down the pecking order. Through agents and Ian Cathro, Rio Ave's Scottish coach, St Mirren's interest was made apparent and on Tuesday Goncalves signed a loan deal that will keep him at the club until the end of the season. Despite his limited involvement this term, the former Boavista youth player has played against clubs of the stature of Benfica, Porto and Sporting, while at Nice last year he scored a goal against Olympique Lyonnais that showcased his pace, strength and touch, all qualities associated with the man he still regards as his idol.
"When I was growing up my hero was Didier Drogba and I think I'm similar in style to him," he said. "I like him a lot. When I was young I'd watched him play in every game for Marseille. I hope St Mirren have their own Didier Drogba now! I'm certainly ready to play and make a good impression. I trained with the squad on Wednesday morning and I was impressed with the team."
His first appearance for his new club may just be St Mirren's biggest game of the season. Some young players might gulp nervously at the prospect of making their debut in a cup semi-final against Celtic at Hampden but, should international clearance arrive in time, Goncalves is ready and raring to go.
"It's such a big game on Sunday, it would be special to make my debut in that match," he added. "I went to Celtic Park on Tuesday night to watch the match against Dundee United after I arrived in Scotland. Celtic played well and look a good team. I have never played in a cup final before but I was involved in a semi-final last season with Nice. We lost 2-1 to Marseille in the French League cup, so I'd like to make up for that."
The first goal that day was scored by Loic Remy, Queens Park Rangers' recent £8m acquisition and someone Goncalves considers a friend from their time together at Nice. "I am still friendly with Loic and we text each other from time to time. He has now signed for Queens Park Rangers and I think English football will be good for him. Maybe he will watch me on Sunday."
Goncalves' arrival is a welcome boost for Lennon ahead of such a big game and the St Mirren manager is excited by what the player will bring to his team. "Esmael is a player who was on our radar before the window opened and he's got a wealth of experience on young shoulders," he said. "He's played in top leagues – France and Portugal – and played against top sides like Benfica, Sporting Lisbon and Porto.
"The game in Portugal is much slower and he likes the boxing match aspect of the game in Scotland where teams take it in turns to have a go. He's a lovely lad and it shows great ambition that he's not prepared just to sit at a big club and be third or fourth choice. He wants to get away and make a name for himself and we'll give him that platform."