Why Celtic’s Matt O’Riley is inspired by both Novak Djokovic and LeBron James

Such was the impressiveness of Matt O’Riley’s performances when he signed for Celtic last January, iit was easy to forget the then 21-year-old was relatively new to first team football never mind the demands made from an expectant crowd.

Time spent trying to make the breakthrough at Fulham, before refusing the offer of a new contract to seek regular first team football – which only came about after a period training on his own in Surrey – showed however there was a belief in his own abilities that few his age would have backed to the point of leaving themselves jobless.

Matt O’Riley arrives at Celtic Park ahead of his £1.5m move from MK Dons

And having arrived at Celtic- via League 1 football with MK Dons – and being introduced to a support who will laud invention and creativity, but will also let a player know when performances don’t match their demands, initial consistency of performance saw O’Riley receive plenty of the former from the Celtic Park support, yet at that stage little of the latter.

As with any young player however, particularly one who had played so little first team football, O’Riley’s form dipped somewhat on occasion and the wrath of a frustrated home crowd was foisted upon O’Riley, something he wasn’t used to hearing.

Yet the strength of character he exuded when declining the security of a contract with Fulham has once again come to the fore when it comes to managing a weight of expectation from his home crowd at Celtic.

And it appears O’Riley, as reported in Scottish Sun takes inspiration from some impressive performers, as he name drops Novak Djokovic and LeBron James as sportsman who handle adversity in the same manner with which they treat the adulation.

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic gets selfies with his supporters in Melbourne on January 30, 2023, after winning the Australian Open tennis tournament’s mens’ singles final against Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas.  (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

“Novak Djokovic is someone I really enjoy hearing speak. He speaks a lot about mindfulness. He’s been so many match points down but he just seems to look the same all the time. I think it comes from the number of times he’s been in those big situations. The top athletes are very good at that.

“LeBron James is another who is always very focused and stays as present as he can. If he’s not then it’ll distract him from what he needs to do.”

Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Lakers – : LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers poses for a picture with his family at the end of the game, (L-R) Bronny James, Bryce James, Zhuri James Savannah James and Gloria James, passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, surpassing Abdul-Jabbar’s career total of 38,387 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Crypto.com Arena on February 07, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

“When I started playing at Celtic and the fans were pretty much 60,000 every week, I wasn’t used to it. When you missed a pass you heard the whole crowd go, ‘Arrrggggh’. You can sense the anxiety. I can’t control the fans. But if I see it from the point of view of, ‘Matt, all you can do is play the game’, I’m usually better for it. That helps,” Matt O’Riley said.

Once again, the character of an Ange Postecoglou signing shines through when you hear O’Riley’s thoughts on dealing with the jump in expectancy from England’s League 1 to a Champions League football club. The demands from the Celtic support will always be there as we all know the consistency of performance required to sustain Celtic’s position as a top football club, and perhaps only some can handle the weight of it all.

RB Leipzig’s Malian midfielder Amadou Haidara (L) vies with Celtic’s English midfielder Matt O’Riley during the UEFA Champions League Group F football match between Celtic FC and RB Leipzig, at the Celtic Park on October 11, 2022. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)

After all plenty of talented footballers have arrived at Celtic on the back of an impressive reputation only to wilt under the pressure of 60,000 demanding voices, and many of those have left without managing to tun it around.

O’Riley however IS different. You can see from the way he plays and the expression on his face he is his own worst critic, and from his willingness to look to the likes of Djokovic and James for inspiration, you can see O’Riley is someone who looks in the right places for influence.

Celtic can be a tough environment for a young player, but it can also make the man, if you can learn to cope with the demands made.

Matt O’Riley of Celtic is congratulated by teammates Anthony Ralston and Liel Abada after scoring their team’s third goal during the Cinch Scottish Premiership match between Celtic and Heart of Midlothian at Celtic Park on May 07, 2022  (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

O’Riley certainly strikes as being a player capable of thriving at Celtic, and although in recent times he has dropped down the pecking order at Celtic, as Aaron Mooy has stepped up, there is little doubt the strength of O’Riley’s mentality matches the footballing abilities that brought him to Celtic’s attention.

It’s therefore only a matter of time before Matt O’Riley returns to this Celtic side and understands the adulation and the criticism come from exactly the same place – a desire from the Celtic support for their club to be the best it can be.

Once players accept and embrace both the positivity and the negativity and let both drive them forward, the sky is the limit for the player and the club.

Niall J

About Author

As a Bellshill Bhoy I was taken to my first Celtic game in the summer of 1987. It was Billy McNeill’s return to Celtic Park as manager and Celtic lost 5-1 to Arsenal . I thought I was a jinx, I think my Grandfather might have thought the same. It was the finest gift anyone ever gave me when he walked me through Parkhead's gates.

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