Nathaniel Atkinson on different World Cup path from Hearts mates Kye Rowles and Cammy Devlin
It’s been a stop-start season for Nathaniel Atkinson, but the Hearts wing-back feels he is ready to get into a rhythm and peak at just the right time along with his Aussie teammates.
The 23-year-old has arrived in Brisbane fresh and eager to remind Australia boss Graham Arnold just what he is capable of in home and away fixtures against New Zealand on Thursday (11am UK time) and Sunday (4am UK time). They aren’t just international ‘derbies’. They are being dubbed as ‘farewell games’ down under, the last fixtures before Arnold names his 26-man squad for the World Cup in Qatar. Thursday’s match in Brisbane is also a celebration of the Socceroos’ 100th anniversary.
It could not be further removed from the cut-and-thrust of the Scottish Premiership. Atkinson, however, is looking forward to the change of scenery. It’s a chance to catch up, a chance to get 90 minutes under his belt.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” he told the Edinburgh Evening News. “Going back to Australia is always handy. You get to catch up with friends and different Australians as well. It’s nice to be in a different environment for a bit.
“My nan and brother are coming over, but my mum can’t get off work. She came to the last camp in Australia. But Nan hasn’t seen me play for the Socceroos yet, so it’ll be great to have her there.
“We’re expecting a big crowd in Brisbane to mark 100 years of the Socceroos. But it’s a really important camp, the last one before the World Cup. It’s the last two games we get to prove ourselves to the gaffer.
“The world’s biggest sporting event is coming up. Every young boy watches it and most probably don’t even dream about getting there to play in it because it seems so far away and very few actually get the chance.
“With Hearts having so many games, I’ve not had much time to really think about it. But now as we go into camp with two games to play, it suddenly feels much closer. It is only a couple of months away, but it will be here before we know it. After the international break we have a lot of games coming up for the club again, so time will fly.”
Australia’s World Cup squad will be finalised over the next 50 days, with Atkinson one of three Hearts players in contention. His circumstances are different to Cammy Devlin and Kye Rowles.
Devlin is in Brisbane eager to impress, his first international call-up coming on the back of a flying start to the season in Edinburgh. Rowles remains in Scotland this week, but is on course to return from injury just in time for Qatar.
Atkinson is somewhere in between. He feels his season is just getting started. He made a great start at Hearts when arriving in January from Melbourne City, making the right wing-back spot his own, receiving his first international call-up and starting both of Australia’s World Cup play-off games in the summer against United Arab Emirates and Peru.
This season has been a different story. Missing part of pre-season, illness, niggling injuries and Michael Smith’s impressive form has curtailed game time in Gorgie. But he did remind Robbie Neilson and Arnold what he can offer by popping up on the left wing to deliver an assist in Sunday’s 3-0 win over Motherwell. It was only his seventh appearance of the season for Hearts, and four of them have been from the bench.
“It’s been a slow start,” he admits. “First game of the season against Ross County, I came off after 20 minutes with sickness and then picked up a couple of niggling injuries. But I’m happy to do what’s best for the team. I just need to keep working hard in training and putting in performances when selected. I was pleased with the 20 minutes against Motherwell, getting an assist. That’s what I need to do. I’m feeling good and ready for a run of games.”
Devlin was on a different flight from Edinburgh to Brisbane after Sunday’s game at Fir Park, and is also on a different trajectory as far as his international prospects are concerned. He was overlooked earlier this year, but a flying start to this season for Hearts has put the midfielder in the mix.
“He definitely deserves his call-up,” says Atkinson. “He’s probably been one of our best players this season. A few camps ago he got unlucky with a hamstring injury, so this has been coming. He’s been excellent for Hearts.
“When we went away to Latvia, the performance he put in was outstanding. And in the second game against Zurich at Tynecastle, I thought he was unbelievable.”
Rowles is another case altogether. He doesn’t have much to prove to Arnold after the way he played in the World Cup play-offs. But the centre-back remains in Edinburgh continuing his rehabilitation work after fracturing a metatarsal last month.
“Kye is strong mentally,” says Atkinson. “It’s unfortunate for him to have picked up an injury at this stage, but he’s been blessed by the predicted timeframe because he is hoping to be back in time to get three of four games for Hearts under his belt before the World Cup.
“I think he was probably the best Socceroos player in the qualifiers. The way he started the season at Hearts showed that he is definitely going to be a walk-in for the Socceroos. But he’s staying positive and he knows he has something to work towards.
“I had the same situation a year ago with the Olympics and I’ve spoken to him about it, so he definitely knows it is possible to come back strong. He’s still on his crutches, but hopefully in the next couple of weeks he’ll be weight-bearing and then after that it's just about managing the pain. He’ll be back running and he’ll be back playing before you know it.”
When that time comes all three of Hearts’ Socceroos could be coming to the boil together at the perfect time.