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Gauld's continental drift: Dundee United's Baby Messi eyes La Liga to continue football education

RYAN Gauld is capable of eluding most SPFL Premiership defenders with a feint and a drop of the shoulder so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised if he also proves capable of leading the big guns of the Barclays Premier League a merry dance.

The 17-year-old Dundee United forward, christened "Baby Messi" for his similarities on the pitch to Barcelona's Argentine phenomenon, celebrated his maiden Young Player of the Month award by hinting he could be prepared to flatly disappoint the likes of David Moyes at Manchester United or Arsene Wenger at Arsenal in order to clinch a dream move to La Liga. With Barcelona and Real Madrid also thought to be monitoring his progress, the teenager is refreshingly rational when it comes to charting his next career move.

"I've got to think what's best for me even four or five years down the line," said the diminutive winger, who went into the weekend as joint assist leader in the top flight, and recently signed a contract extension until 2016. "If I was to go down there I'd have to think what my chances were of first-team football. If I was stuck out in the reserves how much I would enjoy that? I can't just think, 'it's a big club, so I'll jump at the chance to sign for them'.

"Growing up, I've watched the Spanish leagues and prefer that style. Getting the ball down and being patient with the build-up play. In England, it's maybe more direct. If you are a winger you are expected to take on a full-back and get a cross in. If it's abroad, you can turn out, keep the ball and just keep the attack going. You see more players who are smaller in stature. In England, it's more athletes. With me being a smaller guy, I need to think about what's best for me and what's best around me and I think being abroad is the best culture of football for me."

Gauld's likeness to Messi is a subject of much dressing-room mirth. Andrew Robertson, the United left-back and a fine player in his own right, has taken to calling himself Mini Roberto Carlos in response, while there are unconfirmed reports of other team-mates refusing to speak to him in anything other than Spanish at training. But the comparison is hardly accidental - and while Gauld may be quietly spoken, there is a spark in those eyes and a healthy conceit that asks why shouldn't a kid from Laurencekirk have the cojones to compare himself with the best the planet has to offer.

"Messi is a player I look up to because he's the best in the world," said Gauld, all of 5ft 5in to Messi's 5ft 7in. "Every young boy should be watching him and trying to emulate him in training. Don't be an ordinary person, go and try something special."

Messi and his lite version from Angus have yet to meet, but a close encounter with the Catalan giants does figure prominently in the Gauld back story. He was a ball boy at Tannadice in 2007 when Barcelona visited in pre-season, and he recalls being among the baying crowd trying to get Ronaldinho's autograph afterwards. You get the feeling he still regrets the fact a family holiday cost him the chance to renew acquaintances when the Blaugrana returned to St Andrews a few seasons later.

"The first time they came over, the 1-0 game, I was a ball boy and it was just great to watch them," Gauld said. "Messi wasn't over for that game, he was still coming through the ranks. It was guys like Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho and I remember at the end of the game, everyone running on to get Ronaldinho's autograph because he was the main man at the time.

"It was a great game, with a great atmosphere. I got a few signatures, but that was as far as it went - maybe not even a signature, just a wee scribble! I still keep them in my room. The second time they came over I was away on holiday so I couldn't go to watch. I just heard the score, 5-1, and I think Messi came on at half-time and scored three. He did alright, I suppose."

Soon it may be Gauld's time to dispense the autographs, even if his signature "needs a bit of work". The trappings of celebrity are certainly far removed from his quiet upbringing in Laurencekirk, population 4000. "It was out in the back garden and up at the park," said Gauld. "There were little seven-a-side goals. We just set them up on the grass and that's all we had. We usually just phoned everybody to try to get as many as we could for a game. Sometimes there would only be three or four, sometimes there would be 10. It was something we did every day after school."

Football runs in the family, after a fashion. His father played at junior level, and his brother Jamie, 20 this week, plays for a pub team. "I think he [Jamie] could have done well, but just prefers to play with his mates," Gauld said. "It just shows that everybody is different. There might be some really good players out there, but they don't want to do it. He keeps saying his team is better and all that … "

As for the rest of his contemporaries, they seem as unaffected by his new-found fame as he is. "Most of them finished school last year, so a few of them are at uni, and a few of them are training to go to work offshore. Some people are just working in Laurencekirk, in shops and stuff like that. They just treat me the way they have treated me since I became pals with them."

There are glowing tributes aplenty to influences and coaches. There is Jack Souttar, the father of Dundee United team-mate John, who nurtured the pair from six-year-olds at Brechin City Boys' Club. Ian Cathro, now at Portuguese side Rio Ave, worked on Gauld's game awareness and encouraged him always to think one pass ahead in his intensive work between 2004 and 2009.

Stevie Campbell, the club's academy director turned Under-20 coach, took over the mantle, while current manager Jackie McNamara has the responsibility for breaking him into the senior game. Depending on how things go, at international level, Gauld might have to chose from an Under-19 elite round group in England, an Under-21 qualifier against Holland, or maybe even a training camp with Gordon Strachan's full team, come May.

One big Gauld move at least is imminent. The player, still subject to a rota for chores at his digs, is set to move into a flat with team-mates Souttar and Andy Robertson before Christmas. Wherever else he eventually hangs his hat, if he continues at this rate it won't be long before Gauld truly is a household name.

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