IN the middle of last Wednesday afternoon an email dropped in from the bookies.
Some new betting markets were available. Ryan Gauld to win the Ballon d'Or at any point in his career: 50/1. Ryan Gauld to break the Scotland goalscoring record held by Denis Law and Kenny Dalglish: 7/2. Ryan Gauld to win the Champions League at some point: 12/1. No doubt the prices for a knighthood or a Nobel peace prize were available on request.
Eighteen-year-old Ryan Gauld of Laurencekirk in Aberdeenshire (population about 3000) did not become a better footballer last week, but without kicking a ball his reputation and the way he was perceived changed forever.
Loading article content
That £2.2m transfer to Sporting Lisbon, and the headline-grabbing £48m buy-out clause, redrew him as a new figure. In the course of a few days last week he was put on a pedestal along with a young Lionel Messi, a young Cristiano Ronaldo, a young Luis Figo, a young Nani.
The "baby Messi" nickname has been attached to him for a while. It is well intentioned but it has never done him any favours in Scotland and it will not do him any if it's part of the baggage accompanying him to Portugal. "It's not good for any player to be compared to another, especially to someone like Messi," said one of his new Lisbon team-mates, Carlos Mane, at the weekend. The 20-year-old Mane should know. With dull predictably the young Sporting winger has been compared to Ronaldo.
The last thing Gauld needs right now is for the tens of thousands who fill the Estadio Jose Alvalade to look at him in expectation of Messiesque pyrotechnics. Only one man can deliver those. Dundee United get an awful lot right in their youth development but they are not so well off that they can keep any would-be Ballon d'Or winners on their substitutes' bench when they face St Johnstone in a Scottish Cup final. Gauld dazzled in the first half of last season but, in truth, he faded in the second half of the campaign when supporters of United, and everyone else, hoped there would be much more to enjoy in his play.
In February 2009, David Beckham played in a friendly for AC Milan against Rangers at Ibrox. When he was put up for the reporters he was asked for his thoughts on John Fleck. Beckham, ever the diplomat, gave a polite and respectful reply which beautifully disguised the fact he almost certainly had no idea who he was talking about. Fleck, then only 17, was the flavour of the month and there was plenty of salivating hysteria about what he was about to achieve for club and country. George Burley, the Scotland manager at the time, was being told by some that Fleck had to start in the upcoming World Cup qualifier against the Netherlands in Amsterdam.
The Times of London placed Fleck at seventh in a list of European football's top 50 'rising stars'. It was ill-conceived nonsense. At the age of 22 Fleck is now with Coventry City, who finished near the bottom of the third tier of English football last season. He has never been capped. Assessing young talent is a tricky business.
Two of the calmest, most sensible voices of the Gauld to Lisbon story have been the teenager himself and the manager he has left behind, Jackie McNamara. "When kids come through in Scotland we put a lot on their shoulders," said McNamara.
That was putting it mildly. Scotland now produces so few exciting talents that any who do emerge are immediately saddled with massive expectations. When did we last generate a teenager who was wanted by a big club in Europe? When did we last rear one who was sold for a couple of million? So we overreact when it happens.
Teenagers routinely move around world football for far, far more than Gauld's transfer fee. In England Luke Shaw, five months younger, has just joined Manchester United for £30m.
Ten months ago a handful of us spoke to Gauld up in Dingwall. He ran the show in a 4-2 United win, scoring once and pulling Ross County all over the place. Then, as in everything he's said in public since, the wee fella was hugely impressive.
Intelligent, thoughtful and measured, his personality, and his talent, deserve every success. Yes, his height counts against him and he will need to develop physically to become stronger and better at holding off challenges. He will need to be more consistent.
But at his best he is a classy little sprite of a player. He is an exciting dribbler, and passes and moves with thrilling awareness, spontaneity and menace in and around the penalty box. The transfer fee is not much for Sporting Lisbon but his wages and length of contract are big commitments and this club, with its great tradition as a cradle of teenage talent, clearly see something special in him.
From here we can wish him well and do our bit to help. No more "baby Messi" talk. No references to Ronaldo, Figo and Nani. No pressure or cynicism if he plays infrequently in the first team over the coming months. No bets on him winning the Ballon d'Or. Let's just be patient and hope he will grow into the figure everyone wants him to become. Let's do what Sporting Lisbon have done, and give the laddie a chance.