Nathaniel Atkinson explains how highly he rates Australia and new Hearts teammate Kye Rowles

Nathaniel Atkinson reckons Kye Rowles was Australia’s best player in the two World Cup play-off matches which sealed a place for the Socceroos at Qatar 2022.

It’s quite a statement to make about a player who hadn’t even been capped before the decisive crunch matches took place in Qatar last month.

But Atkinson is not just saying that because they are mates. The Hearts wing-back is genuinely excited about what the left-footed centre-back’s career trajectory looks like.

Rowles won his first Socceroos cap in the 2-1 semi–final play-off victory over the United Arab Emirates and kept his place for the decider against Peru, won by the Aussie 5-4 on penalties.

Kye Rowles and Nathaniel Atkinson teaming up for Australia against Peru during the 2022 World Cup play-off in Qatar last month. Picture: Mohamed Farag/Getty

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Games for Australia don’t get any bigger than that, but Rowles played as if he was an experienced international centre-back with 50 caps under his belt.

Rowles has taken to international football like a duck to water at the perfect time and Atkinson is confident he can do the same at Hearts when he arrives next week.

The 24-year-old summer signing from Central Coast Mariners was due to travel with Atkinson to Edinburgh last week and report to Riccarton last Thursday, but the delayed arrival of his work visa meant he had to stay behind.

The paperwork has now arrived, however, meaning Rowles should be in Scotland next week, just in time to squeeze in a pre-season friendly before the season starts for real. Atkinson is looking forward to it and is getting ready to roll out the welcome mat.

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Nathaniel Atkinson has three Australia caps and is looking forward to the World Cup in Qatar. Picture: Mohamed Farag/Getty

“I can’t wait,” he told the Edinburgh Evening News. “I’ve been good mates with Rowlesy for a long time now. I was in the Australian youth teams with him and then the Olympics side. Then we came through in the Socceroos as well and qualified for the World Cup together.

“His first cap was the first qualifier and the second one was to qualify. For me, he was our best player in the qualifiers. He’s a terrific player and I think he’s going to bring a lot to this team and help us do well in Europe.”

The arrival of Rowles will take the Australian contingent at Hearts up to three and they are learning from each other, which means it should be easy for Rowles to settle in. Cammy Devlin was the first to arrive last summer and helped Atkinson when he arrived at Tynecastle Park from Melbourne City in January. Atkinson is ready to do the same for Rowles.

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All three were part of Australia’s Tokyo 2020 Olympics team and their bond off the park makes it easier to perform on it.

“Cam is a bif of a handful on his own,” joked Atkinson. “So to add another Aussie is good. Cammy was a big help when I first came to this club and I want to do the same for Kye, help him settle in as well as possible because that will help him play his best football.”

At least Rowles will get a week and a half to adjust before the first game of the season. Atkinson, 23, didn’t get that luxury when he arrived in January.

“When I first came I got Covid and then on the first day I was allowed out I was on the bench against St Johnstone,” he recalled.

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“After that I just got chucked in there because Smudge, Michael Smith, got injured. I just had to adapt to the football in Scotland, but coming into pre-season this time gives me a chance to work with everyone from the start. That’s going to benefit me.”

Atkinson was given an extended break due to his World Cup exploits, but got his run out in maroon at Prenton Park on Wednesday, playing for 86 minutes in the 2-1 victory away to Tranmere Rovers and looking good.

“I feel alright,” he said. “I’ve only had a couple of sessions to get back into it. Obviously I had a bit of an extended break because I was away with the national team, but nearly 90 minutes against Tranmere will benefit me when the season starts.”

A hugely important and busy season lies ahead for Atkinson. Hearts have a minimum of 26 competitive games to play before the World Cup. In between Australia have home and away friendlies against New Zealand in September. The World Cup finals will be here before he knows it.

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Atkinson only has three international caps himself, having been called up for the first time in March, just a couple of months after joining Hearts. He has since made the right-back jersey his own and is determined to keep it.

Lewis Miller, another Aussie right-back, has arrived in Edinburgh this summer to join Hibs and has eyes on Atkinson’s place in the Socceroos squad. That will add some spice, not that it is needed, to the second game of the season when the Edinburgh derby takes place at Easter Road.

“I know Kye played with him at Central Coast, but I don’t really know him,” said Atkinson.

“But it’s good to have healthy competition. Australia want to do the best they can in the World Cup, so when Arnie [Graham Arnold] picks his squad he’ll pick his best players. It’s good to have Australians coming over to Europe and the Scottish league as well.”

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Rather than let his mind wander to Australia or the World Cup, for now Atkinson is trying to simply focus on making a good start to the season in maroon.

“It’s definitely going to be a big season,” he added. “We have some big games coming up early on and we’ve got European football to play. I’m looking forward, hopefully, to being selected for the World Cup, so these big games will benefit me and hopefully I can put in some good performances and have a good season.

“The best way to put my best foot forward and get into the Australia team is to perform for Hearts. I’ll take each game as it comes.”

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