Aitor Karanka reckons Birmingham have another potential gem on their hands in Riley McGree as his debut goal helped them beat Preston 2-1 at Deepdale.
The Australian deadline-day signing swept home two minutes into his full debut only for Jayden Stockley to level for North End.
Gary Gardner struck late on to make it back-to-back Sky Bet Championship wins for the Blues and Karanka sung the praises of the young midfielder.
“I’m really pleased for Riley because he’s worked hard on the training ground,” said the Birmingham boss of the 21-year-old.
“He’s settled in really well and the other players could see how good he is. It was always going to be a really demanding game, but he scored and played very well.
“We knew Riley would be a player who would help us a lot – and we think we can help him. We have got a really good player to develop.”
McGree was in the right place at the right time as Lukas Jutkiewicz picked him out with an improbable bicycle kick, firing into the bottom right corner seconds into the contest.
Stockley levelled with a stunning strike, calmly bringing the ball down on his chest and picked out the top left corner.
Birmingham’s Josh Dacres-Cogley blasted over just before the break and at the other end Josh Harrop came close with his right foot.
Preston winger Tom Barkhuizen was denied a goal by a stunning save from Neil Etheridge soon after the restart.
Preston kept pushing for the lead but were hit with a sucker-punch when replacement Gardner scored with his first touch, rising highest to head Mikel San Jose’s cross past Declan Rudd.
“We are feeling really good and improving,” Karanka added. “We’ve won two in a row, so hopefully we can build on this situation.
“The tactics are always important, but the attitude and spirit on the pitch is important. They showed that on the pitch, we need to keep going.
“I’m really excited for the team, but we are in October and I don’t want to make the mistake of saying we’ll be up the top. It’s important to take it game by game and keep building.”
Preston are moving in the other direction and a sixth home defeat in a row leaves them 16th in the table.
The last time they took maximum points at Deepdale was against Birmingham in July and Preston boss Alex Neil did not mince his words at the performance.
“We didn’t start the game very well, the goal we conceded was ridiculous,” he said. “We’ve got to be stronger and that was a dreadful start.
“I didn’t think we deserved to win the game. Our performance was OK, but I wouldn’t say it was anything special.
“We didn’t defend our box well enough for the second goal and ultimately it’s cost us the game.
“Our away form is excellent, but our home form is certainly affecting me. I’d be surprised if it wasn’t affecting the players.
“This was the first time I saw a lack of confidence at home. We’re not stupid, we’re need to be better.
“Hard work and repetition is the only way of turning things around. We need to try and find the solutions and take the criticism on the chin.”
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