Riley McGree’s timely re-emergence at Birmingham City has been greeted with glee by Olyroos and Socceroos assistant Rene Meulensteen, who has lauded the playmaker’s persistence in keeping his Tokyo Games dream alive.
Denied a single minute for three months by former coach Aitor Karanka, McGree, 22, has been handed a new lease of life by his successor Lee Bowyer.
The former Newcastle Jets and Adelaide star started and played the full 90 minutes in the midweek goalless draw with Brentford, and followed that up with a classy 45-minute cameo off the bench as the Blues beat Harry Souttar’s Stoke 2-0 overnight at St Andrews to climb nine points clear of the Championship drop zone.
With the July Olympics beckoning, Meulensteen felt McGree’s frustration under Karanka’s reign.
But he said McGree’s head never dropped, with the nine-cap Olyroo working diligently in anticipation of a chink of sunlight emerging.
That came in the form of Bowyer, once a teammate of Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell at Leeds United.
“Sometimes a new coach changes everything for a player and Riley has taken his chance really well in both those games he has played over the last few days,” said former Manchester United assistant Meulensteen.
“I’m sure he would have impressed Lee Bowyer and he’s worked hard to earn the chance.
“There’s no doubting Riley’s talent - he’s been training hard and staying very positive.
“The opportunity has come and all credit to him for taking it.”
Unfazed by Birmingham’s precarious position on the table, Bowyer saw enough in training sessions from McGree to unleash him in his fourth and now fifth games at the helm, with City fans taking to social media to voice their approval of the Aussie, who is on a season-long loan from expansion MLS franchise Charlotte FC.
Some supporters questioned why he had gone so long in the wilderness - a 16-game stretch under Karanka.
One said he had “breathed new life” into the Blues against Stoke, while another claimed his previous omissions were “criminal”.
McGree made a bright start in the Midlands, picking up eight appearances and scoring against Preston in his first full start before Karanka shut the door.
“Of course, Birmingham have been in a tough spot but they’ve turned the corner a bit now and hopefully Riley can play a big part in helping them continue to climb the table between now and the end of the season,” added Meulensteen
“He’s been an important player for the Olyroos and he’ll have every chance of winning a spot in Tokyo, just like a lot of other players.
“He’s a player we already know a lot about and we know what qualities he brings.”
Australia’s U-23s compete in a tournament in Toulon, France in June - at the same time the Socceroos enter their FIFA World Cup qualification hub in Kuwait.
Led by Gary van Egmond, they are likely to play up to five games in 15 days in a camp crucial to final selections for Japan.