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Careers in football can be defined by a single choice. Socceroo Riley McGree, as an example, shunned the lure of joining Ange Postecoglou at Celtic to chase his English Premier League dream with Middlesbrough.
Now he is only 270 minutes away from the ultimate vindication.
McGree is continuing the long tradition of Australian excellence at Boro, who play the first leg of their promotion play-off against Championship rivals Coventry City on Sunday night (9pm AEST). The return fixture is on Wednesday.
Riley McGree is three matches away from making his Premier League dream a reality.Credit: Getty
Get through that, and they will be into the richest game in world football: a one-off clash at Wembley Stadium to decide the third and final team alongside Burnley and Sheffield United that will go up into the Premier League next season. It is worth almost $500 million to the winning club.
“That’s my one goal; that was the reason I came to Middlesbrough,” McGree says. “That was the reason I had no doubts that my decision to go to Middlesbrough was the best decision. To have that potentially within reach – a bit like the World Cup, it hasn’t really hit me or sunk in yet.”
Socceroos assistant coach Rene Meulensteen was also recently faced with a defining choice, a similar fork-in-the-road conundrum. While he was scouting Australian players in Europe late last year just before Graham Arnold named his squad for Qatar, he received an offer out of the blue to join McGree at Boro.
Michael Carrick and Rene Meulensteen during their time together at Manchester United.Credit: Getty
It was from Michael Carrick, one of his former charges at Manchester United, where Meulensteen worked as Sir Alex Ferguson’s right-hand man between 2007 and 2013. He wanted him as his assistant.
The coach who originally brought McGree to the club, Chris Wilder, had been sacked in October after steering Boro to just two wins from their first 11 games this season that had them a point outside the relegation zone. Since Carrick’s appointment, the change in style and results has been remarkable. Boro rocketed into contention for automatic promotion before a late-season dip left them fourth.
And McGree, who has taken his game to a new level under Carrick with six goals and three assists from 43 matches this term, has been central to it all.
The conversation was initially about McGree. Meulensteen offered the incoming Boro manager an insight into his abilities, his journey in the Australian set-up and the best way to use him.
“I told him, with Riley you’ve got a versatile player who understands his roles really well in different positions,” Meulensteen says.
Argentina’s Rodrigo De Paul battles for possession with Riley McGree at the World Cup.Credit: Getty Images
“You can play him as a second striker, a 10, on the right wing, the left wing … Riley has got something to contribute. He can obviously chip in with an assist, he will score the odd goal for you. Good energy about him. Good engine.”
Then it turned to Meulensteen, and whether he’d be interested in joining Carrick in north Yorkshire. Carrick was happy for him to juggle both roles until after the World Cup and then switch to Boro permanently, but Meulensteen figured it would be impossible to do either well and told him to give him a call back once the Socceroos’ campaign had finished.
That call never came. Carrick appointed Jonathan Woodgate instead, and Boro’s sensational form thereafter meant there was no reason to tweak his coaching department.
“Not that I’m worried about that,” Meulensteen says. “Arnie and I were very happy to continue on this journey, because we still feel that with all those young players coming through and getting better, that we can still do some remarkable things with the Socceroos over the next three-and-a-half years.”
All’s well that ends well, really. McGree’s Celtic snub enabled Postecoglou to sign Aaron Mooy instead, thus ensuring that the man who is arguably Graham Arnold’s most important player would be in tip-top shape for the World Cup – and so he was.
The ongoing relationship between Carrick and Meulensteen, who remains Arnold’s eyes and ears on the ground in Europe, means that the Socceroos will have a trusted source of information at Boro regarding McGree’s fitness, form and development. That is critical for the times when club and country commitments inevitably collide, as they will during January’s Asian Cup, which comes in the middle of the European season.
As for McGree, he couldn’t be happier with his place in a team that plays such fluid football that they’ve been described as the Arsenal of the second tier and now stand on the cusp of actually joining them in the top tier. Playing predominantly on the left wing and cutting inside, the 24-year-old is still riding the wave of confidence he got from the World Cup, where he started every game for Australia.
“I was on such a high after that, and still am. It was such a blur,” he says.
“When I got back to the club, a lot of the boys were saying what a massive deal it is, but it’s kind of hard to realise when you’re doing it. The belief that I can play against the best in the world … it gave me all the confidence to know that I could do it at any level.”
McGree’s creative instincts have been unshackled by Carrick, who he also admired as a player during his United days.
“He was such a cool customer, the way he moved,” McGree says. “He did a simple things really well, never really put a foot wrong. And he’s even put that into his coaching. He’s so calm, collected – you know what to expect and what he expects of you but, at the same time, you have that freedom.”
Arnold is in no doubt about McGree’s quality and whether he can take the next step in his career.
“Riley’s got the game to play in the Premier League, his work rate, and all that,” he says. “Technically, he sees the game so quick now. When he gets the ball, he’s already aware of where he wants to play. Probably here [in Australia], that wasn’t the case.”
But are Boro really playing Premier League-worthy football?
“We’ll soon find out,” McGree says.
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