The Inspirational Journey of Faith, Perseverance, and Fulfilment of Title Winner Matt O’Riley: A Lesson for Us All

The Inspirational Journey of Faith, Perseverance, and Fulfilment of Title Winner Matt O’Riley: A Lesson for Us All

The extraordinary tale of Matt O’Riley’s circuitous route to the top – potentially about to move into an entirely new chapter this summer after he helped steer Celtic to their third consecutive title – is worthy of being held up as inspiration to anyone trying to make their way within the cut-throat world of football.

As a teenager at Fulham, he had massive clubs from across Europe watching him and could easily have signed the new three-year deal put in front of him, aged 19, on the expiry of his previous contract. He didn’t. He walked away because he couldn’t see a pathway to the first team.

O’Riley spent lockdown in 2020 without a club, working out in parks around West London either himself or with his dad. He took up an offer to train with MK Dons and drove the 140-mile round trip from his family home in Thames Ditton every day.

He saw a potential move to Belgian side KV Kortrijk fall through after a trial before agreeing terms in Milton Keynes and trying his luck in English League One. And now, just over three years later, here he is.

Since joining Celtic for £1.5million midway through Ange Postecoglou’s first season in charge, O’Riley’s progression has been rapid under the Australian and currently Brendan Rodgers.

Now 23, he has been one of the top performers in the Parkhead side, winning the league title in each of his three seasons – clinching the latest at Rugby Park this week – and was the subject of a £20m offer from Atletico Madrid at the turn of the year.

Matt O’Riley warms up ahead of the crucial Kilmarnock game on Wednesday night

Midfielder O'Riley has emerged as Celtic's prize asset in recent seasons

Midfielder O’Riley has emerged as Celtic’s prize asset in recent seasons

Jubilant O'Riley celebrates the title triumph with team-mate Joe Hart

Jubilant O’Riley celebrates the title triumph with team-mate Joe Hart

Sure to attract renewed interest in the coming months, his personal development has ticked so many boxes in terms of how to motivate players struggling to make the breakthrough at top clubs, where youth isn’t always given an opportunity.

Believe in yourself. Make your dreams happen. Don’t make money your god. Take a backwards step if you have to. Get games.

With O’Riley, you sense there is so much more going on under the surface. Deeper stuff that can apply outwith the insular worlds of professional sport. To all of us, no matter our age or stage in life.

They centre on marching to your own drum, of pursuing things you love and finding ways to carry on finding fulfilment in them when times are tough, of overcoming disappointment, of addressing what is holding you back, of helping others and remaining open to being helped yourself. And perhaps more importantly, particularly in the case of younger men, talking to the right people when it all gets a bit overwhelming.

O’Riley, in laying out reasons for the increased consistency in his game, has spoken about the meditation he indulges in and the regular Zoom calls he makes to a friend and life coach based in India.

‘Dish’ was working as an intern at Fulham during O’Riley’s time at Craven Cottage. ‘I immediately built up a relationship with him because I felt he really wanted to help me,’ O’Riley has said. ‘I didn’t necessarily get that feeling from everyone else there.’

O'Riley scored twice against Kilmarnock in a 5-0 win at Rugby Park

O’Riley scored twice against Kilmarnock in a 5-0 win at Rugby Park

O'Riley is congratulated by Greg Taylor after his double against Kilmarnock

O’Riley is congratulated by Greg Taylor after his double against Kilmarnock

Denmark international O'Riley does a stretching routine ahead of the Kilmarnock game

Denmark international O’Riley does a stretching routine ahead of the Kilmarnock game

It was fascinating to hear what his friend actually addresses with him.

‘I work with him a lot in terms of speaking about things, which were maybe kept inside me for a long time,’ said the midfielder. ‘(Things) I might have not had, not necessarily the courage, to speak about, but the knowledge to understand how to speak out about it. That has helped me loads and it has helped me to be a more rounded person overall.’

Football is a harsh environment. It’s getting better, but young people within it still feel that conforming to stereotypes is an easier choice. Individualism is not always encouraged.

With the levels of pressure and expectation that exist, it can be a difficult proving ground. That O’Riley is confident enough to admit he uses such new-age approaches is to be applauded. The fact he has been insightful enough to confront the obstacles stopping him getting where he wants to go is amazing.

Confronting inner demons is challenging and complicated. O’Riley, himself, admits that getting into this headspace, this frame of mind that has taken him to the brink of lift-off, has taken a good couple of years of hard, hard work. Something about him also tells you he is likely to remain a work in progress.

Almost everyone who speaks about O’Riley mentions his deep, unending love of football. He talked not so long ago about his desire to maintain the ‘young, childish playfulness’ he had on the field as a 14-year-old, expressing himself freely, appreciating football for what it is and should be.

He concedes this has not all come from within. It has involved accepting help and advice from others when things have been a bit rough.

He talks of how the foot-up others have given him in the past now causes him to make a point of offering encouragement and support to colleagues and team-mates.

Were it not for Russell Martin, the one-time Rangers player, O’Riley might not be where he is today – playing international football for Denmark and preparing to enter the arena of the real, bonafide elite.

Martin, then managing MK Dons, got a call from an agent in 2020 to let him know O’Riley – watched by Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund and all sorts as a boy – was looking for somewhere to train. The invitation he extended led to a contract and a real stepchange in the way O’Riley related to the game.

‘From day one, they were always really nice to me,’ O’Riley said in an interview with The Athletic at the time. ‘Just a lot of praise, which I wasn’t actually that used to. It was nice to feel wanted.

‘I’ve never really had a relationship with a manager who would be talking to me regularly about how they feel about me, telling me what I can and can’t do.’

O’Riley is an advert for self-help but serves as proof of what can happen when people are willing to reach out to others, accept kindness into their own lives and talk through their fears and insecurities with those they trust, rationalise them, and form them into an action plan.

O'Riley has been on his own path to the top, from Fulham to Celtic and potentially beyond

O’Riley has been on his own path to the top, from Fulham to Celtic and potentially beyond

It undoubtedly served him well when his form dipped during the middle part of this season at a time when Atletico’s interest was gathering pace but was ultimately rejected.

O’Riley worked his way back to becoming one of Celtic’s most influential performers and their most prized asset.

Having since admitted he would be better equipped to deal with transfer speculation in future, he quite frankly deserves everything that is coming to him.

* A version of this story first appeared in the Mail on Sunday in January 

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