Nathaniel Atkinson: Hearts are about to get bigger - but I feared my World Cup dream was over

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Hobbling out of the Stadio Artemio Franchi on crutches three weeks ago, Nathaniel Atkinson feared his World Cup dream was dead. Excruciating ankle pain left the Hearts defender fearing the worst less than two months before the biggest honour of his life with Australia. He returned to Edinburgh with team-mates and underwent a scan before an agonising wait for the results.

Thankfully, medical images confirmed no serious damage from that Europa Conference League match against Fiorentina. Atkinson didn't play again until Thursday night in Istanbul, marking his timely return with an even more timely first European goal against Basaksehir. The perfect way to announce that you're back fit and ready for international duty in Qatar.

“It was late in the game, I rotated into midfield, I saw Finlay [Pollock] breaking and then I saw Shanks [Lawrence Shankland],” recalled Atkinson, who had ventured forward from right-back anticipating a break of the ball in the dying minutes. “I was hoping Shanks would dummy it but he had a shot. Luckily the keeper spilled it to me and it was quite an easy finish. I've scored a volley outside the box for Hearts and now a tap-in inside the box.

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“I’ve been out for a couple of weeks so it was good to get back playing from the start. To finish off my first European experience with a goal is good. I was disappointed with the result but we are definitely building something. We've learned a lot from this. It wasn't just for me. The fans had come all that way and we probably haven't performed in the best way we wanted to. To get a goal right at the end gives them something to celebrate and finish off this European experience. Every player wants to score goals and to do that in my first game back was great.”

Scoring a consolation goal in a 3-1 defeat certainly felt better than flying home from Florence in a state of fear. Asked if he thought his World Cup chances had been destroyed by injury in that moment, Atkinson gave a brutally honest account of his emotions.

“At the time, yeah. It was excruciating pain,” he admitted. “I did this injury four years ago so that just stirred it up, all the scar tissue and that stuff. It's not ideal but it's not an injury that takes a long time to settle. It did settle down. I know I'm going to play with pain but I've done that before.

“I had a couple of sleepless nights waiting for my scan results to come back. It took a while and it's hard. I experienced it nearly two years ago before the Olympics. I had a high-grade hamstring injury and was out for 14 weeks. I just got back the week before and went to the Olympics the next week. It gives you something to work towards.

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“You get that glimmer of hope that you can get back in time. That gives you motivation to do everything possible to get back in the team. It was a weight off my shoulders when I learned I could get back for the World Cup. To get back into the Hearts team in a European game and score a goal is good for myself and a definitely confidence boost.”

Nathaniel Atkinson scored on his return from injury for Hearts against Istanbul Basaksehir.Nathaniel Atkinson scored on his return from injury for Hearts against Istanbul Basaksehir.
Nathaniel Atkinson scored on his return from injury for Hearts against Istanbul Basaksehir.

Australia coach Graham Arnold is due to announce his final squad for Qatar next week. Atkinson is in contention alongside Hearts colleagues Cammy Devlin and – fitness permitting – Kye Rowles. “The good thing is a lot of games are coming up [with Hearts] so you can't really think about that. We have three important games and then it will be over. You will know if you're in or not.”

The Edinburgh club's Conference League campaign finished for this season in the Fatih Terim Stadium. Atkinson's goal continued Hearts' habit of scoring in every away European match – against FC Zurich in St Gallen, RFS in Riga, Fiorentina in Florence and Basaksehir in Istanbul. “I didn't even think about that. It's extra special to give the fans something to cheer about,” said Atkinson. “It is a consolation, I think, but we want to play every game to win and progress. We didn't do that but it's something to build on. We are starting to score goals in Europe now so it's definitely something to get back to next season.”

Bridging the gap to wealthy clubs like Fiorentina and Basaksehir will not happen in a year or two, but Atkinson is convinced Hearts can get closer. “I think we can by getting continued success. We made a cup final last year and hopefully we can build on that. If we can start winning trophies like that, it will help us move forward and get the right recruitment we need. We have a great side at the moment but with a lot of injuries. Winning games and bringing more success year in and year out will be good for the club financially. The club is only going to get bigger.

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“We went through a bit of a rut. You can look at injured players, or just that we haven't played the best football. We have overcome a lot of adversity in the last couple of weeks to get some results. That only comes with experience of big games. It's not easy to go to Istanbul against a top side. The boys went to Ross County last week and got a result with all the injuries.

“You take the most out of the situations. It's not great not winning games but you look at the positives. The gaffer said we want to play European football every year. He said he can see we play good football at times and the goals are coming as well.”