Young players dream of moving to a massive European club but for the majority, this is just a fantasy. But every now and then…
Celtic FC have announced the signing of Riley McGree, one of Australia’s most consistent midfielders of the past half decade.
The journey from a humble South Australian town to the football hotbed of Glascow is a story of perseverance.
Gawler is a working-class town roughly 45 minutes from Adelaide, where the people have a work-hard mindset. The town’s club, the Eagles, has yo-yoed between the various divisions for the past 40-plus years.
Kristy Moore, who had a great career overseas, is the most well-known player to come from the club, although Ben Warland, Pacifique Niyongabire and Lachlan Brook have graced the A-League.
I was one of a number of people contacted a number of years ago to view McGree and all it took was one game for me to start regularly keeping tabs on him.
Looking back at Riley’s early scouting reports, as his skills developed from a seven-year-old to 12-year-old, the word that stuck out the most and is still relevant today is ‘tenacious’.
McGree has always been positive and his playing style is the epitome of never give up. His tenacity is what separates him from other midfielders of this generation.
After being a standout in youth teams, he made his Adelaide United first-team debut at 17 and took the league by storm, sealing a move to Club Brugge.
Like many Australian teenagers that move to Europe, he struggled with the language and coaching, in turn being loaned back to the A-League without playing a single match.
The loans to Melbourne City and Newcastle Jets showed glimpses of what the former prodigy was capable of – his scorpion kick while playing for the Jets went viral and earned him a nomination for the Puskas Award.
At 20 years of age, his development cycle was fully complete by returning home to South Australia and in the best season of his young career he netted 13 goals in all competitions, several assists, and sealed yet another move – this time to Charlotte in the MLS.
Charlotte immediately loaned McGree to championship side Birmingham City, where he found minutes initially hard to come by, until a change of manager saw a change in fortune.
Under the tutelage of ex-Premier League midfielder Lee Bower, McGree’s dominance of the midfield in the hustle and bustle of the Championship saw him become a cult hero with the Birmingham faithful – who even petitioned the club’s hierarchy to sign him permanently.
Birmingham City’s loss will be Celtic FC’s gain though – especially as Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou gave a young McGree his maiden Socceroos call up.
Postecoglou’s Celtic have a fluidity in midfield that will suit a player like McGree, who is capable of playing as an attacking, defensive or central midfielder.
But the position he excels in is as an old-fashioned, box-to-box No.8.
Opposition teams have always struggled to track his runs into the box and even if they manage to stop them, McGree is capable of letting fly at goal from long distance.
His high-energy defensive pressing work rate will be perfect for a midfield that likes to hunt in packs.
The rise of Riley is a good example of hard work, determination and commitment to succeed – three characteristics that young Australian footballers in recent years have lacked.