Celtic’s Matt O’Riley – A Special Season For A Special Football

Matt O'Riley Celtic

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When Matt O’Riley arrived in Glasgow in January 2022, he was Celtic’s 17th signing of the season. 

Two-and-a-half years later, he’s firmly in the conversation as one of the club’s best ever. 

Ange Postecoglou’s now-infamous attempt to sign Riley McGree was futile, so the club’s data department made him aware of a 21-year-old midfielder excelling in League One, and the rest is history. 

Despite his quality being clear from the very beginning – his first two home performances against Dundee United and Rangers were exceptional – some demanded more from him following the 2022-23 campaign, O’Riley’s first full season. 

He promptly obliged. 19 goals and 18 assists (with one match remaining) represents a frankly ridiculous level of performance for a central midfielder who only turned 23 in November. 

GOAL MACHINE

O'Riley Celebrates His Opener In The Recent Glasgow Derby
O’Riley Celebrates His Opener In The Recent Glasgow Derby

In a season of many imperfections and obstacles for Celtic, O’Riley has been the one constant positive, starting all-but-one of the Hoops’ 48 matches so far – but fitness and availability are just two of his many strengths. 

The upturn in Matt’s goal numbers has been his most striking improvement, with the Denmark international taking more responsibility since the arrival of Brendan Rodgers to the Parkhead dugout. 

Add that to his technique, vision and natural keenness to link up with teammates and it is clear that his exceptional 2023-24 season is not a one-off: it’s a bar-setter. 

O’Riley’s midfield role was more balanced under Ange Postecoglou, with his defensive qualities – a largely underrated aspect of his game – being called to action more frequently in a slightly different set-up. Under Rodgers this campaign, he has averaged over one shot more per Premiership game. 

MENTAL PREPARATION

The change hasn’t just been tactical though – a model professional, the magnificent midfielder has also focused on the mental side of his game in a fascinating show of perfectionism. 

“I think I’ve learned more than ever. I’ve been more open-minded, which has allowed me to learn a lot more,” he said last month [Daily Record.] 

“I was never closed minded, but maybe took things more to heart or more personally last season. I’ve done a lot of mental work and just have a stronger sense of self identity. I’ve been more open to information.”

With the exception of a self-admittedly poor penalty in the recent derby, the improvement has been evident in a number of the big moments this season – he provided sublime assists in all three of the Celts’ home Champions League fixtures, proving his worth at the highest level. 

MOVING UP THE LEVELS

It is also easy to forget that this is just his fourth campaign playing first-team football, in a career which begun when O’Riley made his first senior appearance for boyhood club Fulham in an EFL Cup tie against Bristol Rovers in 2017. 

Three frustrating years without a run of games followed, leading to his decision to reject a long-term deal at Craven Cottage ahead of the 2020-21 campaign, opting to spend several months training with MK Dons before signing for the League One club at the midway point of the season. 

“Matt took a gamble by agreeing to come to MK Dons – a move that demonstrates the bravery and character of a player who will undoubtably enjoy a long and successful career at the top,” sporting director Liam Sweeting told mkdons.com after O’Riley’s sale to Celtic. 

“We have always been aware of Matt’s desire to return to a higher level which is why there was a release clause in place in the contract he signed with us.”

The decision is reflective of a confident, mature, realistic mentality which has frequently been apparent since he swapped Milton-Keynes for Glasgow – the almost-laughable £1.5 million price tag goes down as one of the greatest bargains of Celtic’s modern history. 

The Hounslow-born midfielder – whose mother hails from Denmark – was an England youth international, with Steve Cooper handing him an under-18 debut alongside Phil Foden in 2017, evidence of his reputation as a highly-rated prospect during his teenage years.

It was, however, in his first full season at Celtic Park that he made the decision to swap the Three Lions for his mother’s nation, impressing during four under-21 appearances before finally making his breakthrough with a first international cap in Belfast last September. 

This was a feather in the cap of a complete campaign, which must pose questions regarding where it ranks among the very best had by Celtic midfielders. Kris Commons, who won the Scottish PFA Player of the Year award after hitting 32 goals in 2013-14, certainly warrants a mention. 

O'Riley In Action For Denmark
O’Riley In Action For Denmark

THE MODERN DAY MAESTRO

Paul McStay’s famous double-award-winning 1987-88 season will be the benchmark in the eyes of many, and in the years since, not many have matched Matt’s impact from that position over the last nine months. 

Sadly, to be a Celtic supporter in today’s age is to accept that your favourite player will rarely stick around for too long – and in the case of 23-year-old O’Riley, many have already accepted that the writing is on the wall this summer.

Inter Milan, Brighton and Atlético Madrid have all been credited with interest, with the latter having a loan-to-buy bid worth €21 million booted out in January.

“Atlético Madrid is a big club, but he obviously knows he’s in a great place here,” said Rodgers at the time. 

“One of the things I’ve always been impressed with is Matt’s mentality. How he approaches his profession and obviously the respect he has here for Celtic.

“He’s really kicked on this season in his progression and he wants to continue with that. For us, we’ve got no want to sell, we’ve got no need to, and he’ll be here for the second half of the season.”

Despite the added incentive of eight guaranteed Champions League matches for the Hoops next season, the club are braced for more of those big-money bids, and the assumption is that the focus will be on replacing him, rather than keeping him. 

If we have just witnessed a final full season in Hoops for Matt O’Riley, it certainly won’t be one forgotten in a hurry. Given his consistently impressive, classy character, few supporters are likely to begrudge him his big move. 

Regardless of what a seemingly limitless future holds for the Danish sensation, it is his 2023-24 season which will keep him in the history books for decades to come – and we have been truly privileged to witness it.

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