A-League: Newcastle Jets' McGree pushes claim for starting spot

COACH Ernie Merrick concedes that Riley McGree has done enough to earn a place in the Jets starting side.

The teenager, who is on loan from Belgium powerhouse Club Brugge, has a goal and an assist in two appearances off the bench.

But such has been the form of the second-placed Jets, Merrick is loath to make changes – for now.

“We have been doing so well that I don’t see the point in suddenly changing the team,” Merrick said. “Riley is working towards earning a regular start and is doing it very well. He is learning to adapt to the way we play: when to go forward, when to go back and the type of runs he can expect from Roy O’Donovan and Andrew Nabbout.”

McGree came on in the No.10 role in his debut and replaced Pato Rodriguez on the left in the 2-0 win over Melbourne Victory last Saturday.

“He is a young lad who is very quick and has a range of skills,” Merrick said. “He has a great left foot, can score goals and, as he has shown, can create them as well. He is the type of of player I like, very flexible and willing to play a range of positions.”

With Ronny Vargas expected back from a broken ankle next month and Pato Rodriguez’s fitness improving each week, the competition for places, especially in the front third, is only going to get stronger.

“Experience tells me to expect anything leading into finals,” Merrick said. “If you lose a player through suspension or injury, it is good to have a flexible player to slot in, especially attacking players. We have a range of defensive options but attacking players are hard to come by. Riley certainly adds to that. We have the depth to do quite well in the phase leading into the finals. No-one is guaranteed a spot and the competition for places is very good.”

The Jets return to training on Thursday after four days off to recharge the batteries.

“I think it is important to have a break when you can,” Merrick said. “It is a more a mental break for the players. They didn’t have a complete physical break. They were given running programs to do, but mentally they should be refreshed.”

The second-placed Jets’ next assignment is away to Western Sydney on February 16 in the second weekend of a split round-20. They have a four-point gap on Melbourne City, who meet runaway leaders Sydney FC on Saturday night.

Ideally, the Jets want to stay in the top two and be ready to pounce if Sydney suddenly falter, but Merrick hasn’t set a points-target from the final eight games.

“It’s more a focus on how the players can improve themselves, whether it is making more tackles, more successful passes going forward, distance covered at high intensity, runs into the box … all the achievable things that are in their control,” he said.

The Jets will hold an open training session at Tomaree Sporting Complex on Saturday, starting at 10am.

“I am a great believer in having training sessions in those pockets where we have a lot of fans,” Merrick said. “We did a similar thing in the pre-season with our tour to the mid north coast. Will Creedon, who is one of our sponsors, and the Nelson Bay football club have been very helpful in organising this.”