The evolution of Matt O’Riley has him stepping up into a bigger role
“There were about 20,000 here, and I’ve never played in front of that many people so I really wanted to make a statement”
Matt O’Riley has been in excellent form for MK Dons this season, wearing the captain’s armband and scoring in the 2-2 draw with Ipswich Town
The new, young feel to MK Dons’ squad this season is asking for a lot of players to take extra responsibility perhaps beyond their years - and one of those stepping up is Matt O’Riley.
Still only 20, O’Riley skippered the side for three games this season while Dean Lewington was out of the side. Signing for the club on a free transfer in January following his release from Fulham, he made 24 appearances for Dons before he pulled on the armband for the first time against Bolton Wanderers.
Stepping up to the plate this term, O’Riley has also had to give up some of his more attacking tendencies too. Playing alongside Ethan Robson in a deeper midfield role, he has played a more inclusive role, helping out at both ends of the pitch, carrying out role which last season was done by Josh McEachran and Andrew Surman while he was allowed to roam free further forwards.
His performance in the 2-2 draw with Ipswich at Portman Road on Saturday was, in his own opinion, his career best and came in front of the biggest crowd he has ever played in front of, capping it with a brilliant equaliser.
He said: “I’m playing a slightly different role from last season but nonetheless I’m enjoying it because I’ve got more licence to roam around. If I was stuck in one spot, I wouldn’t enjoy it as much but I’m allowed to move around and get involved, get us playing, it’s what I like to do.
“I’m playing slightly deeper but I have to be more aware of playing for the team first, and if I can help out with goals, and I do want to score more and create more, I’ll do my best to do that.
“It was (my best performance). When I came on the pitch and saw the crowd I thought I was really going to enjoy myself. There were about 20,000 here, and I've never played in front of that many people so I really wanted to make a statement.
“We're a smaller club than Ipswich, so I wanted to prove a point to myself and the team, and to be honest I think I did that.”
Perhaps more crucially than his own belief in his abilities, head coach Liam Manning too has seen traits in O’Riley he is delighted with so far, most notably his emotional maturity for someone so young.
And given his characteristics on and off the pitch, Manning feels O’Riley is a perfect candidate for the captain’s armband when Lewington isn’t in Dons’ starting line-up.
“Matt has done a really good job,” said Manning. “He has some really interesting attributes. He has huge potential. He is really stable emotionally - he doesn't get too high or too low.
“When the team is doing well or struggling, he is consistent which is a good sign of a leader. And he's willing to take responsibility in all areas. He doesn't shy away from the ball.
“He has real leadership qualities, and we'll keep pushing and challenging him on that front because he can have a really good impact on the group.”
Though he spoke of his disappointment in the immediate aftermath of the game, O’Riley feels Dons are in good stead at the moment and probably should have more than their five points on the board.
He said: “We look really dangerous at the minute, which is cool, and we've looked solid defensively. I know we've conceded a couple of goals, but I think in general we're in pretty good stead.”