Exclusive: A-League commentator gives Hearts fans the lowdown on incoming signing Nathaniel Atkinson

Nathaniel Atkinson is set to become the latest Australian to thrill the Tynecastle crowd after a deal was agreed for the player to become Hearts’ first signing of the January window if he receives a work permit, which the club are confident will happen.

By Craig Fowler
Thursday, 23rd December 2021, 6:25 pm
Updated Friday, 24th December 2021, 7:23 am
Atkinson represented Australia at this summer's Olympics. Picture: Getty

The 22-year-old is a burgeoning right-back in his own country and will now make the plunge to travel across the other side of the world to join fellow countryman Cammy Devlin in calling Edinburgh his new home.

Every signing represents a gamble in football, but foreign imports are looked upon even more so. The differences in culture, homesickness and feeling isolated from loved ones can often make it a painful transition and performances will dip if a player is negatively impactful. Yet there’s a lot in Atkinson’s background which suggests he’s fully determined to make a success of moving from Melbourne to the Scottish capital.

In AthletesVoice, a publication for sportspeople to tell their own stories, Atkinson spoke of having to often cook and look after himself from a young age as his mother worked long hours to provide a good life for her son after she and his father split before the footballer was born. His grandmother remains a legend at his local club, Riverside Olympic, and he described her as his “biggest inspiration when it comes to football”, while she also helped out with raising her grandchild. (He and his father reconnected when he was 12.)

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Atkinson in action for Melbourne City in the derby against Melbourne Victory earlier this month. Picture: Getty

Atkinson’s talents meant he was destined for bigger things than the team he grew up following, so at the tender age of just 14 he made the decision to move away from his family in Launceston to Hobart, 125 miles away, to play at the National Development Centre, living under the roof of two different families who had their own children in the NDC. Even with this opportunity and his skills, not to mention that in-built toughness, it was still a difficult road to navigate becoming a professional.

"He comes from a part of the world, in Tasmania, where it’s really hard to get a professional contract,” explained highly-respected A-League commentator Simon Hill. “There’s very few players who come out of Tasmania and not because there isn’t talent, but because there isn’t the pathways there for them. He’s had it quite tough so it gives him a bit of resilience.”

He certainly seems to have the determination to succeed 10,000 miles away from his current residence, but survival skills will only get you so far on the football field. He’ll need to have the talents to back it up, particularly as he’ll be joining a Hearts side in excellent form this campaign, currently sitting in third place with a five-point lead over their nearest challengers and the promise of guaranteed European group-stage football if they can hold on that spot and one of the top three wins the Scottish Cup.

There is, however, a potential place for him in the starting eleven if he can hit the ground running. Hearts have largely played a 3-4-3 this season, though it’s often been a complaint of fans that the wing-backs are a little on the defensive side. This won’t be an issue with Atkinson.

Nathaniel Atkinson is set to join Hearts from Melbourne City. Picture: Getty

"He’s got a bit of everything: he can cross a ball, he can score, his positional play is pretty good, he’s versatile - he can play right-back, right wing-back and right wing, and he’s got a good attitude,” said Hill. “He’s a young kid who has emerged on the scene the last couple of years and did very well with Melbourne City last season. He helped them win the double over here and won the Joe Marston Medal, which is the player of the match award in the Grand Final, in which he scored as well.

"I think he would fit in quite nicely into Hearts’ system. He does like to attack, it’s his more natural inclination. He loves to get forward. It can occasionally leave his team a little exposed defensively, but he’s got a good enough engine and with the coaching he can get at Hearts he can become a complete player at right wing-back.”

For Hill, who has been an expert on Australian football for the past 18 years after moving from Manchester, the biggest possible downside with regards to the signing comes with his lack of experience.

"In Australia we talk about potential a lot. That’s because players tend not to get as many opportunities at a younger age than they do overseas,” he said. “There are more professional clubs in Scotland, England and the rest of the world, let’s be honest. There are only 12 professional clubs in Australia. These kids have a lot of obstacles in their way. He’s probably only played about 70-80 games in his career, whereas in the rest of the world you’re looking at a 22-year-old playing about 150 games.

“All the raw attributes are there. He can cross a ball, provide chances, he can tackle, he’s got a good engine, and he can chip in with a goal as well. He just needs to show it all consistently.

"I really hope he makes it because he’s got the potential, longer-term, to really benefit the Australian national team. He’s not too far away at the moment and had some very good performances at the Olympics. The guy who has the jersey at the moment is Ryan Grant who, strangely, trained with Hibs. Atkinson is probably about third or fourth in line, but obviously has youth on his side.”

Of course, you can’t complete a conversation about Australian right-backs at Hearts without mentioning 2012 Scottish Cup-winning hero Ryan McGowan.

"I know Ryan McGowan very, very well. He’s a top bloke is Gowser, a top fella,” laughed Hill. “Nathaniel has more of an attacking edge than him, and Gowser will probably smash me for saying this, but he’s got more of an engine than McGowan, especially these days.”

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