From Di Maria to Dunfermline: Nathaniel Atkinson reveals his midfield role as he aims to seize a Hearts opportunity
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With some Hearts supporters openly demanding new signings to inject fresh zest into their team, one familiar face aims to become more established. Nathaniel Atkinson looks relaxed after his first appearance of pre-season but the intensity of his workload is about to increase.
Sunday’s 45-minute outing in the 1-1 friendly draw at Dunfermline eased the Australian defender back into action after an extended break. He played for the Socceroos in mid-June against Lionel Messi, Alexis Mac Allister and the rest of Argentina’s World Cup winners. Going from Di Maria to Dunfermline is a fair contrast but Atkinson knows there is an opportunity to be seized at Hearts.
He is currently the club’s only senior right-back following Michael Smith’s release in May. Desperate to secure the position for the season ahead, competition is inevitable with several new signings likely to arrive. The 24-year-old’s endeavours over the next month will determine his suitability for first-choice status.
He won’t take anything for granted despite being the only experienced player in his position. “I wouldn't say it's a positive. There will be players coming in,” he acknowledges. “We obviously need some more players. We've lost Michael so we are going to have to replace that position, but I've got that opportunity to make it my own. That's my goal.
“Sunday was my first game back since the holidays. It was good to get some minutes in the legs. There's always cobwebs [to blow away] when you switch off from football for a bit, but that's what these games are all about.”
Inverted full-backs are now a key Hearts tactic under the management team of Steven Naismith, Frankie McAvoy and Gordon Forrest. Atkinson, a former midfielder, is more than adept at stepping into the centre of the pitch.
“It's enjoyable. It's different to the last couple of seasons, but I'm used to that at my old club Melbourne City. That was our style of play so it's not uncharted territory. I think it gives us different types of variety in attack. Especially for me, I enjoy doing that. Back in my younger days I was a midfielder, so I'm not uncomfortable there. It gives a different avenue for the boys to play.”
The assumption that players were asked to be more defensive-minded under previous manager Robbie Neilson is dismissed by Atkinson. “No, I wouldn't say that. Different gaffers have different styles of play,” he stresses. “We had a different formation back then with five at the back at times. You need different plans and different ways of playing and I think we've changed that now. We've got to get used to it.
“They [McAvoy, Naismith and Forrest] have brought a different way of life, to work with others, to try and find those gaps. We are still working towards that. We finished off strong last season and hopefully we can bring that forward to this season.”
A burgeoning relationship between Atkinson and the Japanese winger Yutaro Oda developed towards the end of last term. That should continue this season, provided the Australian succeeds in cementing the Hearts right-back role. “Every day we get closer. I find out different things about him, he finds out different things about me. It's good to understand the person before the footballer and I think we've been working at that. I look forward to more minutes with him.
“To be fair, Oda is getting better with his English. We've got a translation app, you speak into it, which is good. It's important for him too, to be part of the group. You can see the type of player he is from last season. He's highly rated in Japanese football as well. He's a great guy but an even better footballer.”
Atkinson’s summer break was short before he travelled to China for that Australia-Argentina friendly. In total he got just over two weeks to recuperate before playing for Hearts at East End Park. There was no time to return home to see friends and family. The opportunity to pit himself against perhaps the greatest player ever to live was too good to turn down.
“It was a full side from Argentina, which was a good experience. I didn't get to play against them at the World Cup,” he smiles. “To share the pitch with those types of players – Di Maria, Messi – was definitely a good run-out.” Coping against such footballing royalty is still daunting, even in a friendly with little at stake. Graham Arnold, the Australia national coach, had his team well drilled even though they suffered a 2-0 defeat.
“We set up to play a certain way and you've got to hold your own. The manager says it's just 11 shirts against 11 shirts and you've got to win your individual battles. After that, the rest takes care of itself. Luckily Messi wasn't on my side, so it was better. Rowlesy [Kye Rowles] was dealing with him.”
The lack of a substantial rest during summer is something many footballers, particularly internationalists, must adapt to in the modern era. June international breaks are now a fixed part of the calendar and pre-season in Scotland begins before the month is out. There is little window for a proper holiday.
“In Australia it was a bit different with the pre-season, so you get a bit of extra time off. It's only 28 games back home. Here, games come quick and fast. That's the life of a footballer these days and you have to take it as it comes.”