Hearts ace Nathaniel Atkinson hits key checkpoint on epic journey from humble beginnings
There’s a popular Twitter meme which must have popped up on the timeline of every user who’s been active on the social media platform over the last couple of years. It features two photos along with the text ‘how it started’ and ‘how it’s going’.
A quick search reveals Nathaniel Atkinson has yet to compose such a self-congratulatory message on his @NattyAkka account, but if he did decide to celebrate the acceleration of his professional life over the past few years then it would reveal quite the contrast.
The Hearts defender is from Australia, but more specifically than that, he’s from Tasmania. The island off the south coast counts as the country’s sixth and smallest state, both in terms of populace and land mass. It’s a beautiful place but also seen as something of a footballing backwater.
Soccer players don’t tend to come out of “Tassie” too often. Dominic Longo was the last player to emerge and represent his country as a full international, and his final cap came 24 years ago.
Making it as a professional in the sport he grew up adoring took an incredible amount of determination and self-belief from Atkinson, but he wasn’t alone in his quest.
Though his parents split before he was born and he initially didn’t have a relationship with his father, he grew up in a household obsessed with the beautiful game. His grandmother is a legend at the local club, while his mother and uncles are keen fans as well. They did whatever they could to encourage as he rose through the age ranks before making the difficult decision to move 125 miles away from home as a 14-year-old to give himself a better chance at success.
Therefore, upon hearing he’d been called up to the Australian squad for the first time in his career there was little doubt where the first outgoing call was heading.
"The first thing I did was phone my family to tell them the news because obviously they've been there through the whole journey since I was little, driving me up and down the state of Tasmania and then obviously I moved to Melbourne by myself. But it's nothing but a reward for them for all the sacrifices they've made for me,” said the January signing from Melbourne City.
"Coming from little old Tassie, the last Tasmanian to represent the Socceroos was in 1998, so it would be good to hopefully become the newest member of that club.
"I know I was close in the past. I have been unlucky to have broken down with injury. I was injured for three months in Australia before the Olympics as well. I've always been in amongst it but to finally get called in officially, and be fit and healthy, is exciting."
"Arnie [coach Graham Arnold] gave me a call. We've got a good relationship. I had him at the Olympics and I had quite a good tournament. He just said that he likes the energy that I bring. He likes that I don't really care who we play against. We came across some world class players at the Olympics – you look at Spain, Argentina, you're playing against Pedri and people like that but it's no different to coming up against Japan or Saudi Arabia.”
These upcoming matches are not just some daft friendlies. The Socceroos will face their two opponents with the knowledge that six points from a possible six will guarantee them qualification for Qatar 2022.
"It's do or die at the moment,” said the 22-year-old. “If we get two wins we go automatically to the World Cup. If not, we might have to go to a play-off. But these are the games you want to be a part of. To have the chance to send your country to the World Cup, there's nothing but exciting times ahead.
"My earliest memories of the Socceroos was at the World Cup, playing Japan (they won 3-1 in 2006 in Kaiserslautern) and funnily we are playing Japan in the first game, so to have an opportunity is an amazing thing."
Atkinson could well have been joined on the flight to the other side of the world by team-mate Cammy Devlin who is on Arnold’s radar after a sparkling first season in Edinburgh following his move last summer. Alas, a hamstring injury in the 2-2 draw with Dundee United recently has ruled him out until the middle of April.
"I definitely do feel for him,” said Atkinson of his countryman. “I think he would have been in the team if he hadn't broken down with the injury. To be fair, he had nothing but good thoughts for me. He was disappointed but he's a big boy and everything happens for a reason. He'll be looking to be there next time.
"So the ideal goal is to get to the World Cup so we can both be part of it.”
It’s early days for Atkinson at Tynecastle but he’s showing a lot of promise as an attacking full-back in Robbie Neilson's team. Last Saturday in the Scottish Cup quarter-finals, he dribbled around Jordan Jones and crossed into the penalty box, which led to Aaron McEneff putting Hearts back in front in the rollercoaster 4-2 win over St Mirren, setting up a highly-anticipated semi-final encounter with their Capital rivals.
An Australian right-back playing against Hibs at Hampden is the kind of omen Hearts fans savour after Ryan McGowan’s goalscoring heroics in the 2012 final victory over the green half of Edinburgh.
"Everybody dreams of scoring that winning goal or making that goalline clearance and I'm sure if that opportunity comes, I'll take it with both hands,” said Atkinson. “Hearts have given me the chance to become a European footballer and I want to do nothing but the best. I've won trophies in the past and I want to win them here as well."