Dundee United FC's precocious youngsters have been the talk of Scottish football all season, with scouts from across Europe flocking to Tannadice to see what the fuss is about. The star of the show is Ryan Gauld, an impish midfielder whose vision, verve and trickery have earned him the nickname 'Mini Messi'.
The 18-year-old playmaker has already expressed a desire to further his career in Spain and, with Manchester United FC and AS Roma among the sides reportedly sniffing around, a bigger stage seemingly beckons. Yet he is not the only one. Centre-back John Souttar – the Terrors' youngest ever first-team player when debuting at 16 – and left-back Andrew Robertson, two years older at 19, are also among a vintage crop.
Gauld and Souttar both started at Brechin City Youths FC where they played under the latter's father, Jack. A former professional himself, Souttar Sr knew the pair had potential as early as the age of seven. "Ryan's control of the ball was fantastic," he said. "His first touch was exquisite. He had it all from an early age. However, it was only when we started playing other teams that we realised both him and Johnny were a bit special."
For United's youth director Stevie Campbell, that moment of recognition came when he pitched a 15-year-old Gauld into an Under-19 game at Heart of Midlothian FC. Within minutes he had scored two goals, the second a mazy dribble followed by a fine finish. Speaking to UEFA.com, Campbell said: "My jaw literally dropped. It was one of those 'oh my God' moments when you realise you had a special talent on your hands. We lost 4-2 but everyone wanted to talk about Gauld that day."
Ably supported by Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven, relative veterans at 21 and 23, fourth-placed United have been the most entertaining team to watch in this term's Scottish Premiership – at one point scoring four or more goals in five successive fixtures. Though the Tangerines suffered a slump during the busy festive period, losing three straight matches, manager Jackie McNamara remains optimistic.
"I am sure they will have learnt more from those defeats than the games they won at a canter," the former Celtic FC full-back told UEFA.com. "They have learned so much in the last six months but we have got to make sure we protect them in terms of the number of games they play and the expectation now heaped upon them.
They are all level-headed lads so I have no worries on that front; they have been outstanding for me so far."
Although Gauld, Souttar and Robertson all recently signed extended contracts, everyone connected with the club acknowledges they are unlikely to spend the rest of their careers on Tayside. Gone are the days when former United manager Jim McLean was able to retain a group of youngsters until they won the 1983 domestic championship, reaching the European Champion Clubs' Cup semi-finals 12 months later and the UEFA Cup final in 1987. However, United and their fans are still excited to see where their prodigies end up.
"Ryan has said he'd like to play in Spain because he knows that would suit his game better," said Souttar Sr. "He's already playing in a way that can break down defences and allow him to play in the top European leagues." Campbell added: "I think we're looking at three future Scottish internationals. I really think they will go to the very, very top of the game and that would be a tremendous thing for Scottish football."
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