If there wasn’t enough excitement around the addition of Melbourne City full-back Nathaniel Atkinson then the 22-year-old’s comments at his first Hearts press conference will only add fuel to the already raging fire of expectation.
On the fridges of the Australian national team after an impressive performance at last summer’s Olympic Games, coming hot off the heels of a goalscoring man-of-the-match performance in City’s A-League Grand Final victory over Sydney, there is more than enough pedigree and potential in his locker to get the Hearts support eager for his maiden bow in their club’s colours.
Added to this is the current squad’s need for a player of Atkinson’s talents. Though Robbie Neilson’s side have got by just fine with the core unit – leading the battle for third place by eight points with the best goalscoring and defensive record outside of the Old Firm – there is a popular criticism that they lack a bit of attacking zest from the wing-back positions. Veteran full-back Michael Smith has performed surprisingly well in the more demanding role. Despite turning 33 earlier this season, the Northern Irishman rampages forward with gusto every game and has become a fearsome attacking outlet for opponents. Yet with his advancing age it’s sensible to give him more competition and the ability for Neilson to rotate him out of the team in search of freshness. He's also the ideal professional for Atkinson to learn from.
When this author spoke to respected A-League commentator Simon Hill about Atkinson last month, the Manchester native noted that Australians typically travel better if there’s a familiar accent in the dressing room. Atkinson will have that in the form of popular midfielder Cammy Devlin, who, with his all-action style, has become a firm favourite of the Tynecastle crowd since moving to Edinburgh in August.
“I’ve settled pretty good. It’s a bit cold but I’ve put an extra layer on to cope with that. I just got my apartment yesterday so it’s starting to feel like home. Cammy Devlin has been taking me around Edinburgh. I don’t have a car yet so he’s been driving me around fortunately. We went to a shopping centre yesterday to get a few necessary things,” said Atkinson.
"It’s very important to have someone like Cammy to help me settle in. I’ve known him for about three years now through the junior national teams. We’ve grown quite close. He’s a really good lad. He’s helped me a lot just by introducing me to the boys and making me feel like home. It’s been vital, to be fair.
"I hope to make the same impact as him. Cammy throws his body around and dies for the badge every day. I’m the same. I hate to lose. I will try and win at all costs and if that means putting my body on the line I’ll be sure to do that.”
The player was primed for his debut in the 2-0 win over St Johnstone on Tuesday, but with the hosts defending a slender lead late in the game, Neilson opted against making a further change on the right of the defence after Taylor Moore was brought on at centre-back following a knock to Craig Halkett, with John Souttar (jeers constantly ringing in his ears) moving into the centre.
It means Atkinson’s bow could come this Saturday away to Auchinleck Talbot in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup. Hearts are clear favourites for the tie but know they cannot rest on their laurels after last season’s humiliating exit to Brora Rangers in the same competition.
The new signing doesn’t know too much about Saturday’s opponents or the history of the proud Ayrshire club, but he’s got plenty of experience going into humble yet hostile environments of tournament football.
"I don’t know too much about Auchinleck to be fair. The gaffer has said that it’s going to be a very difficult game. Obviously every game here is difficult. A team like that will obviously beat a team like us but we want to win every game as well.
“I’ve definitely had matches similar to this in the FFA Cup, there’s a lot of NPL teams in there as we call them. A lot of those clubs were tied down to the NSL back in the day which had a lot of ethnic communities full of passion. I have had that experience in the past. So I shouldn’t be phased by Auchinleck. Hopefully not.”
Once he’s experienced the romance of the cup, the next step is to establish himself as a regular in the squad and then go on to complete his rise through the international youth levels to playing for the Australian national side, which is no mean feat for a kid from the Oz footballing backwater that is Tasmania.
“That’s the ambition,” he said. “I thought it was time for me to go to Europe and test myself. When Hearts were interested and offered the chance to come to a big club in Scotland where lots of Australians have done well then it was a good choice for me. I’ve come close in the past to getting into the Socceroos and hopefully I can continue form, get fit and start playing.”