Nathaniel Atkinson explains the long-term Hearts coaching plan to develop him into a top right-back

Developing Nathaniel Atkinson into a rampaging European-style full-back is one of Hearts’ long-term projects. The Australian is very much devoted to the process.

Tuesday, 3rd May 2022, 7:00 am

Since arriving in January from Melbourne City, his professional growth has followed a steep upward trajectory more through default than intention. Hearts intended to ease him gradually into Scottish football but injury to Michael Smith, their established right-back, forced a greater reliance on the new lad.

He has responded well. Sixteen games, eight clean sheets, one goal, a few assists and an international debut for his country. Moving to Edinburgh has taken Atkinson’s career to new heights and he may yet end the campaign with a Scottish Cup winner’s medal. This is only the start.

“I feel it’s going well,” says Atkinson, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I took a bit of time to adjust to a different football culture. I feel I’m getting better every game. I wanted to work on my defensive attributes and I believe I’ve done that. Now I can look at what I like doing best, which is getting forward and helping with goals.

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“It’s a dream come true to play for your country and coming here was definitely going to put my name forward a lot more. It’s a more competitive league in Europe, and now that we’ve got ourselves into European competition it’s only going to give me the best experience to help the Socceroos if I’m selected.”

It certainly helps when your new manager was a distinguished right-back. Robbie Neilson’s area of expertise is the very position Atkinson now occupies. The player is even wearing the No.12 squad number which belonged to Neilson during the 2004/05 campaign.

“He has obviously given me a lot of pointers, things like positioning your body when we don’t have the ball,” explains Atkinson. “That’s one of the main aspects of defensive shape and then he lets me be a lot more free going forward. That’s why I was brought here.

“He encourages me to attack and that’s what I like to do. I’m quite a fit person to get up and down. We play with wing-backs and times and sometimes it’s a back four. When the wingers come inside, then the full-backs need to stay high and wide.”

Hearts defender Nathaniel Atkinson is improving rapidly.

Neilson sees serious potential in Atkinson, who only recently turned 22. “I think he can be more positive,” says the manager. “We signed him because he is an attack-minded full-back. When he does that, he can be a top play but I think he needs to do it more. I’ve spoken to him about that and his decision-making when he gets there.

“He is growing into it. He has had to play more than we planned with Michael injured. To his credit, he has done very well. I think there is a really top player in there. Nathaniel is still a kid, adjusting to a new style of football and culture. He is getting more confident but we want to try to push him.”

The most recent shutout came in Saturday’s goalless draw with Ross County at Tynecastle. Anyone slightly disappointed by the result can draw some solace from a clean sheet recorded by what could be described as a reserve defence.

If we assume Smith, John Souttar, Craig Halkett and Stephen Kingsley are Neilson’s first-choice back four, then Atkinson, Taylor Moore, Toby Sibbick and Alex Cochrane are staking their respective claims as the cup final looms.

“I’m 22, Taylor is 24, Toby is 22 and Alex is 22. It was definitely an inexperienced back line,” admits Atkinson, a wry smile breaking out across his face. “Obviously we have Craigy [Gordon] behind us who is nearly double our age, but it was a confidence boost that we could perform like that with so many players missing.

“We are frustrated we didn’t hit the back of the net at the other end. You can take the bonus of a clean sheet but the boys wanted to win and continue our good form. We didn’t lose but it was a frustrating day in front of goal.”

The next few weeks are likely to test all concerned. Hearts have four games remaining this season – Celtic and Motherwell away, followed by Rangers at home, all in the league. Then it’s the showpiece final at Hampden Park against Rangers.

“They are all big matches and the first three will put us in a good position to be ready for the cup final,” says Atkinson. “It gives you that extra lift. Playing Celtic and Rangers, I think every team that comes across them wants to beat them.

“Every player wants to play in the biggest games on the biggest occasions. Those two are probably the biggest of the season. Then we face Rangers in the cup final and it’s going to be a great spectacle.

“When I found out I might be coming here, I looked at the team and the results. They were sitting comfortably in third place. In every game we increased the gap from fourth place. I’ve played in two grand finals in the last 18 months in Australia so to be in another one is great. It’s what every player wants.”

Confronting a more high-profile compatriot in Glasgow won’t faze Atkinson, who has already been warmly welcomed to Scotland by the Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou.

“He was the Socceroos coach back in the day when I was in the under-19s. He would come and watch our games. My second game for Hearts was against Celtic and he just said ‘hi’.

“He told me to keep working hard because we’re all Australian and it’s tough to come over here. We all support each other.”

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