Exclusive: Nathaniel Atkinson's talks with Hearts management as he looks to reclaim a first-team place
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Atkinson would never seek to profit from a team-mate’s injury and took no pleasure seeing Michael Smith hobble out of Easter Road on crutches following Saturday’s Edinburgh derby. The Northern Irishman's hamstring problem potentially creates an opportunity at right-back which Atkinson must seize in order to make an early impression on the interim Hearts manager, Steven Naismith.
He delivered an encouraging performance against Hibs after replacing Smith in the opening minutes. Some diligent defending and marauding forward runs hinted at a player looking to force his way into the starting line-up. After falling out of favour under former manager Robbie Neilson, the Australian defender is entitled to view the next few weeks as a fresh start. He spoke openly to the Evening News about discussions with Neilson, Naismith, and why he feels he has nothing to prove.
“I don’t think I have to prove anything to anyone,” said the 23-year-old. “Players will always say that they are their own toughest critic and that’s what I am. I play for myself, my family, the club and the fans. When you’re happy outside of football, you are going to be happy inside football. That was my main focus to be ready when the time came.
“It’s not good to see a team-mate go down in the first five minutes, then seeing him on crutches afterwards. Everyone needs to be ready to come off the bench and that’s why we have quite a large squad. I did what I had to do. If it’s not me to fill in [this week], I’m sure someone else can do that. The most important thing is to start getting results for the team.”
Defeat in Leith was Hearts’ sixth in succession and left many fans once again frustrated and angry with their team. “I don’t think we deserved to lose but we probably didn’t deserve to win either. It was a pretty average game at best. We have to think of ourselves. We are disappointed with the result but we need to keep moving forward,” said Atkinson.
“I’m quite happy with how I played, I guess, but I would have preferred to get three points for the team. The team comes first, individuals second. It was my first game in a while so I need to build match fitness again and get a feel of the game. You need momentum. Every player wants to play every game but in reality that isn’t always the case. Every game you play gives you momentum to push on and get better. I like to think I’m still young so the best way to get better is to play.”
He doesn’t appear to hold any grudge against Neilson for that extended period on the bench. Smith has been Hearts’ first-choice on the right side of defence all season, with others including Toby Sibbick and James Hill filling the position on occasions. Atkinson wasn’t entirely forgotten about but found himself well down the pecking order.
“That’s football, isn’t it? You can be in and out of the team at times,” he stated. “It’s not the first time it’s happened to me in my career. Every footballer wants to play every game but that’s not how it is sometimes. You just have to bide your time and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Hearts’ issues are well-documented at the moment with Robert Snodgrass jettisoned from the first-team squad and Naismith striving to revive the pursuit of European football following Neilson’s dismissal. Since returning from Qatar, Atkinson has been on one long rollercoaster at Riccarton. “It’s not the first sacking I’ve experienced and it probably won’t be the last,” he said, philosophically. “It was sad to see Robbie go. I’ve got a lot of time for him and I owe him a lot for bringing me over to Europe. When you don’t get results, the first person in the firing line is going to be the gaffer.”
The defender explained that he did approach Neilson for an explanation as his absence from the starting line-up continued. “Yeah, of course. The team comes first and the gaffer thought at times that the team was better off going in a different way and playing a different style. Obviously, you need the players to play that style. I’ve had a good relationship with Robbie. I could always go to his office and he was always honest with me. Football moves so quickly and you just have to move on.”
Talks with Naismith last week centred largely around the derby and how the interim boss wants Hearts to play. His approach is to be attack-minded and threatening in the final third – at least more than has been the case over the last few weeks. “Stevie was buzzing to get the opportunity,” said Atkinson. “He has had a chat with everyone to say that what happened in the past stays there. We need to pull together and put performances together.”
The recent malaise is threatening to derail Hearts’ entire season as they sit five points off their target of third place. Six crucial fixtures are left, starting with Ross County’s visit to Tynecastle Park this Saturday. If any game is must-win, it is this one.
“The next game is the most important,” said Atkinson. “We look at Ross County and not beyond that. If we get a result, that gives us momentum. We want to get back into that third spot. The only way to do that is to start picking up three points.”