Birmingham City fans are feeling a “sense of loss” over Riley McGree’s departure, having realised in recent months that the Australian was an “unpolished diamond” in their ranks.
Brian Dick, the Blues’ beat writer at the Birmingham Mail, says the club’s fans were “really keen” for the 23-year-old to remain beyond January. But instead, it is Celtic and Middlesbrough fans who are clamouring for information over the Socceroos midfielder, who is tipped to move from Major League Soccer expansion franchise Charlotte FC – who had loaned him out to the Championship club – in the coming days
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The former Newcastle Jets, Melbourne City and Adelaide United A-Leagues player scored three times, and made 31 appearances in all competitions before his loan deal expired in December, and had been hotly tipped to make a $6m reunion with Ange Postecoglou at Celtic any day now.
That has reportedly hit a roadblock, with Scottish press suggesting their fifth signing of the window could now sign for Middlesbrough for improved personal terms.
If former Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder can lure him to seventh-placed Middlesbrough, that would certainly agitate fans of Birmingham, hovering in 18th on the table.
“It was certainly something of a surprise when the club announced he was coming on loan from Charlotte and not Adelaide,” Dick told KEEPUP.
“Fans wouldn’t have been too bothered for the most part but the more we saw, the more it became obvious he could contribute.
Supporters were really keen for him to remain beyond January – as (the) Blues were – and there’ll be no little irritation if he goes to another club for a fee that Blues’ owners are not willing to pay.
That sentiment is a measure of McGree’s success at the Midlands club, given it got off to an inauspicious start thanks to an early interview where he suggested the move was a “stepping stone” in his career.
“No, that was a bit of a PR own goal,” Dick said.
“But it was relatively quickly forgotten, scoring on your full debut helps with that.
“However, almost as soon as he had arrived, (AItor) Karanka brought in another No. 10 – Alen Halilovic – to provide even more competition for McGree and Jon Toral.
“McGree then went months without a consistent run of starts in his favoured position. An impressive showing at left-wing back at Brentford was a step forward – and there were some good contributions off the bench, meaning his stock rose.
“The clamour for him to stay grew and after he gave an interview in which he expressed his love for Blues (and) the feeling was totally mutual.”
McGree enjoyed a rapid ascent into the Socceroos – thanks to Postecoglou – and shot to worldwide fame thanks to his FIFA Puskas Award nomination for his ridiculous scorpion goal in 2018.
His success during his loan move hints at an ability to graft out success too, however.
Dick continued: “By the time he left Blues, McGree had won over all the doubters. Even when his loan move was extended in the summer there wasn’t much of a reaction because Aitor Karanka and Lee Bowyer had barely used him.
“However things really took off for McGree when Tahith Chong got injured at the end of October and he was given regular starts in his best No. 10 position.
Within a few weeks it was obvious that Blues had not made best use of the unpolished diamond that had been on their books for a year. The sense of loss at his departure was keenly felt.
Australian football fans are aware of the talent who left our shores for pastures abroad, but what impression has he made to those watching him week in, week out over the last 18 months – during which, according to Opta, he clocked up a 78% passing accuracy?
“Good players can play in almost any situation and McGree has revealed himself to be a good player,” Dick assessed.
“His energy and willingness to do ‘the dirty work’ correspond very well to what most Championship managers want – and presumably that’ll be the same if he finds himself at Celtic.
“McGree’s movement and ability to get turned and play forward are his main strengths and if he is in a side that has a lot of possession you’d expect him to thrive.
“Sometimes his decision-making or final ball could be a bit more consistent but he’s learning his way and it has definitely improved.”
Now it remains to be seen if he does reunite with Postecoglou, joining Reo Hatate, Yosuke Ideguchi, Daizen Maeda and Johnny Kenny at Parkhead, or Middlesbrough, or another suitor, win the race.