Whilst many have struggled through the latter half of 2021, Socceroo Riley McGree has enjoyed a breakout of sorts. Having made his debut for the national side and seven appearances in the World Cup Qualifying campaign, he also experience a solid run of game time and form at club level with EFL Championship side Birmingham City.
On loan from MLS side Charlotte FC, after struggling for game time in the 2020-21 season, McGree played in 15 of the club’s 25 games, getting on the scoresheet twice.
His loan spell ended at the start of the month and he returned to his parent club. However, his form made him hot property, with clubs in England and Scotland expressing an interest in signing the midfielder.
One such club was Scottish powerhouse Celtic FC. Led by arguably the best Australian manager Ange Postecoglou, many Australian football fans were excited at the prospect of the duo linking up alongside compatriot Tom Rogic.
However, this dream has faded, with Championship side Middlesbrough successfully convincing McGree to make the move to Teeside, with the club this morning confirming they have secured his services for around £3 million.
The turn of events has been met with disappointment and skepticism in some quarters of the Australian football world, with some struggling to understand why McGree turned down the opportunity to work with the man who first brought him into the Socceroos fold, as well as playing at one of the two biggest clubs in Scotland.
However, there are many arguments to be made that McGree’s choice of the North-East of England over the East End of Glasgow might make sense in more ways than one.
That’s not to say that a move to Celtic would have been a bad option; after all Postecoglou is known for getting the best out of his players and for playing an exciting, expansive brand of football. He has also had a quick impact at the club, with the club recovering from the nadir of finishing 25 points behind Old Firm rivals Rangers to being unbeaten in 14 league games and with a trophy already in the bag.
But McGree’s destination is also undergoing a revival under new management. Chris Wilder, the man who masterminded Sheffield United’s return to the Premier League, has galvanised his side in two months. The team has climbed from 14th to 7th and are one of the form teams in the competition. He is also known for playing a positive style of football, headlined by the unique use of ‘overlapping centre backs”
Whilst ambitions of promotion this season through the playoffs may be far fetched, if Middlesbrough can continue their form, they could be knocking on the door of the Premier League in the future.
McGree is also choosing to remain in one of the most cut-throat, competitive leagues in the world. Australians past and present have made a name for themselves in this league pefore successful spells in the top flight, Tony Popovic and Aaron Mooy spring to mind. McGree appears to have this in mind, stating that “England is where you want to come and play”.
The standard of quality overall in the Championship is higher than that of the Scottish Premier League, where Celtic and Rangers often find themselves in their own ‘mini-league’, such is their financial power and availability of resources.
Whilst some point to Celtic’s ability to play European football – they could qualify directly for the Champions League if they can overhaul a six point deficit at the top of the table – the club’s record in Europe has been mixed recently. This is not the Celtic of the 2000s who were consistently in the Champions League and even making the knockout stages, this is a Celtic side who have failed to appear in the group stage since 2017, now plying their trade mainly in the Europa League.
And even if Celtic were to reach the Champions League, there would be no guarantees he would see consistent game time. His position in the middle of the park is a highly competitive one at Celtic, with Rogic, David Turnbull and James Forrest already at the club, as well as two Japanese midfielders, Yosuke Ideguchi and Reo Hatate, being bought in the last week. At Middlesbrough, there is a high chance he will slot straight into the starting lineup.
Make no mistake, a move to Celtic under the tutelage of Postecoglou could have been brilliant for McGree if he was to get significant game time and high quality European football. The romantic element of the scenario is alluring.
However, at this point in time, the boy from Gawler stands to gain more from embracing the Wilder revolution than the Postecoglou renaissance.