Much has been made of the 22-year-old’s new-found potency, which has delivered four goals in only eight outings. It is a tally to match the midfielder’s total in each of the two campaigns subsequent to a £1.5million move from MK Dons in January 2022. Yet, the tutelage of Brendan Rodgers – who prides himself in developing receptive, callow footballers – appears to have drawn more from the Londoner than an ability to sniff-out opportunities.
In his time in Scotland, the bright O’Riley hasn’t always appeared the imposing presence on the field his 6ft 3in frame makes him in civilian life. Technical endowments and poise in possession have always been to the fore. But under the Irishman, added grit and dynamism have been evident alongside a keener glint for goal. The product of O’Riley’s hunger to buy into what his manager has been selling him on the training pitch. His talents have always suggested he could be a genuine box-to-box performer. And it should be recognised he was faultless deputising for the injured Callum McGregor in the central holding role under Ange Postecoglou. Now, though, that is what he is bringing to a Celtic side starting to show the traits sought by their mentor.
The best possible outcome for the club in one sense, Rodgers is fully aware of the flipside. It is notable that O’Riley has not been among the raft of players to have agreed contract extensions in recent months. The more plumped up his game becomes in Glasgow, the more the Danish under-21 is ripe for being plucked. And the Celtic manager does little to dispel the notion this season could prove the player’s final tour of duty north of the border. It is understood he was the subject of a bid between £10m and £15m from Leeds United last summer. That was warded off courtesy of two factors: Rodgers’ unwillingness to consider further upheaval in a squad then experiencing significant turnover and O’Riley’s willingness to see Celtic as a domain where he could continue to derive satisfaction and grow as a professional.
”It was an open conversation [when it came to the bid] and that’s what I’ve always had here with Michael [Nicholson] and the guys [on the board],” said the 50-year-old. “I didn’t think we could afford to lose another starter and the club were very supportive on that. They were great. We had obviously lost [Carl] Starfelt and lost Jota and we knew Cameron Carter-Vickers was going to be out for a while. I didn’t feel we could lose another one. But, of course, that’s all on the player as well because if the player really wants to move and pushes for it, then I’m also a believer that if he doesn’t want to be here then don’t be here.
“I’ve got experience of that, where you think you can keep them for another year but they are not the same player if they really, really want to go. I never got that feeling at all from Matt. He knows that I’m investing in him to help him become better. He still knows he’s got a bit to improve and I hope this part of the season is confirmation for him that I can still improve him as a player and develop him. Certainly his value will increase in 12 months time.
“With the greatest respect he could have earned significantly more money by leaving. But that is not everything for him. He is investing in his football and becoming a better player. And that’s admirable. And it hasn’t fazed him one bit. That’s about the communication as well. He has to know where his game can go to find the happiness.”
Rodgers knew where O’Riley’s game could go, because he knew precisely where he wanted to take Celtic as an entity. Stepping up the intent to win the ball back, looking to make more forceful challenges, more turnovers. “I think it is one of the things I could help the team in,” he said. “Defensive work is the best attacking idea in football. But it never gets deemed that. Why? The better you are at winning the ball back the more attacks you can create. And you cannot do that unless you are good at pressing, being aggressive – and that is not jumping in two-footed, you cannot get away with that nowadays – but intercepting and blocking and getting in contact with people.
“You can’t just drift through the game. You can always attack, but it isn’t that simple. And it is about framing that with the players. The best form of attacking is your defending and that first line, and Matt has got much better at that. You see the number of balls in the air that he wins. Little details. First ball, second ball, third ball. You have to do those dirty bits of the game. And when you do that, you settle the game and you play. But you have to win it. And he has taken that on board really well. He is getting a nice mix to his game. He has a great football IQ. He can play, he can see a pass, his touch is good. But to be an all-round player at the highest level you have to be able to do a bit of everything and that is what he has shown.”
Rodgers would love to see him contracted beyond the two years remaining on his current deal, but he knows the terrain. “We have been here before, haven’t we?” he said. “This is the beauty of me coming back. The experience tells me when players are at a point. He is in his third year now. I said to him in pre-season, ‘I can make you a better player and improve you as a player. But naturally what happens at Celtic is that you improve and develop and then, you know…I am not wishing him out the door of course.
“But he is 22 years of age. Funny enough I was talking to Kasper [Hjulmund] the Danish national manager on him the other day. I was giving a report on him and I know Kasper well from dealing with the Danish players I had at Leicester, we have a good relationship. I was telling him that from the outside Matt is totally different from when you are inside working with him. So I just think he needs to keep doing what he is doing. Of course we want to keep him here, we would love to keep him here, and I believe that he still has a lot of development to go here. But he is showing some great signs.
“He has a wonderful attitude to the game, he is ambitious, but ambitious for Celtic as well as himself. He has invested into learning and you see that with his track record. He left Fulham when he was a young player and talented and was about to be in-and-around the first team, to go and play at MK Dons before coming here at 20. He comes in and shows his level and for me there are more levels to come from him. I am delighted with his progress, he will get better. And if we can tie him down for longer, which we want to, then all the better, of course."