It’s hard to believe that this time last year, Milton Keynes Dons midfielder Matt O’Riley was without a Club and training largely by himself after turning down a new deal at Fulham in favour of a change.
Now, he’s being recognised as the EFL’s Young Player of the Month for November, having excelled under new head coach Liam Manning, with the Dons sitting just inside the Play-Off places in the Sky Bet League One standings
And, to say he didn’t plan on outstaying his welcome at Stadium MK, after a friend of a friend got him an in with former boss Russell Martin to keep his fitness levels up, the 21-year-old hasn’t done too badly.
“I got a lot of weird looks from people at first thinking, ‘what are you doing?’” he began. “Now, they’re starting to realise, ‘OK, it probably was the right thing for him to do’.
“I’ve played 50-odd games here and yeah, I might have played that at Fulham, but at that time in my career, it just didn’t feel like the right thing to do. I wanted to take my career into my own hands and trust my ability. Ever since I’ve done that, it’s really paid off.”
O’Riley, who maintains a close friendship with August’s Young Player of the Month and former Fulham team-mate Fabio Carvalho, bagged two goals and an assist in a 4-0 win against Morecambe last time out in the League.
That takes his tally to five goals and five assists and counting – already a better yield when compared to the previous season.
“That’s kind of what tipped it off,” he said, on accepting the award. “A 4-0 win and it’s always nice to score, but I’m not someone that prides my game purely on goals. I like to run a game, in terms of passes and all of that kind of stuff.”
Transitioning seamlessly between roles, the youngster has tried his hand playing centrally, deep, further forward and out on the right, allowing him to switch up his game this year and become more versatile.
And although it’s nice to make the scoresheet, the midfielder has found himself thriving in a more defensive-minded position.
“At the start of the season, I was playing a bit deeper and trying to dictate the game, in terms of my position, whereas in November I was playing a bit higher up. In the sense of goals and assists, it was probably a bit easier for me to contribute and stand out. At Morecambe the other week, I was playing a bit higher up so I was getting into positions that I wouldn’t usually get into.
“At the start of the season, I’d have said I’d rather have played higher up. When I started playing deeper, I got a lot more of the ball and I really got my touches. I enjoyed that more, purely because when I get more of the ball, I can help the team tick, as such, and get us flowing nicely.”
In skipper Dean Lewington’s absence, O’Riley has stepped up to the plate and worn the captain’s armband on a handful of occasions, demonstrating his natural leadership skills for all to see – something which the manager encouraged him to grasp with both hands.
“When Liam came in, he said to me from the start that he wants me to be somebody who can lead within a young team,” he recalled. “I’ve tried to do that ever since.
“We’ve got Dean Lewington who has played 800-odd games so I can’t be in a position to want that captaincy, but whenever I’ve stepped up to it, I’ve tried to do a good job. It’s something I’ve really enjoyed.
“I’m a better player this season than I was last season. I’m more confident and I’m taking more responsibility within the team.”
The beating heart of a youthful squad making their mark under Manning, with O’Riley in particular striking up a partnership with League One November Player of the Month Scott Twine, the number seven – who currently features in the WhoScored League One Team of the Season so far – has well and truly taken his career back into his own hands, as recognised by his accolade.
“It’s the first time I’ve won it so it’s a new experience in that sense but a nice one,” he continued.
“I’m just very grateful to be a part of a team that’s a proper team. There are no egos in the squad, no cliques and everyone’s a real tight unit. That definitely helps me on the pitch.
“Hopefully there’s more to come in the future.”