City’s Nathaniel Atkinson chasing titles and Tasmanian Olympic history

After getting back to his roots, Nathaniel Atkinson not only has a maiden Melbourne City A-League title in his sights but also becoming just the second Tasmanian and first Launcestian to ever represent the Olyroos at an Olympic Games.

Back in early April, in the 18th minute of his side’s 3-2 win over Wellington Phoenix, Atkinson’s 2020-21 season appeared to have come to a sudden and painful end. 

Clutching at his hamstring before he even challenged James McGarry, the youngster fell heavily to the turf and didn’t move for several minutes; burying his face in the turf and his hands as he struggled to compose himself in the face of the pain shooting down his leg. 

Carried off the field by City physiotherapist Darren Stanborough, he knew something was seriously wrong. 

“I did it before the season started and I thought it felt a lot more painful than the first one – so I knew it was a pretty bad one'” Atkinson recalled. 

“I was really enjoying my football and playing pretty well and for an injury like that to happen was a kick in the guts.”

Despite missing the first three games of the 2020-21 campaign, Atkinson had to that point been one of the form players in one of the A-League’s form sides — stringing together nine starts, two assists and a goal amidst his side’s six-game winning streak.

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Earning March’s nomination for the A-League’s Young Player of the Year, he not only appeared to be a near certainty for the Tokyo Olympics but, as teammate Connor Metcalfe would accomplish, a dark horse for Socceroos selection as coach Graham Arnold sought to build a bridge between the U23 and senior sides. 

But with that all now seemingly gone in the blink of an eye, Atkinson needed a mental circuit breaker.

“I went home to Tassie for two weeks just to clear my mind,” he said. “That was the process early on, and then I came back to Melbourne probably three or four weeks into the injury. 

“I think it was a refreshing thing because I was pretty down in the dumps in the first few weeks when I was here just waiting to work out the process of rehab.

“Then I found out I could go home for two weeks and relax – go and see my family I haven’t seen in over a year. 

See Also: Graham Arnold set to hit the phones to secure Olyroos Tokyo 2020 squad

“It’s tough to go back there because of what happened with COVID and then when the season starts you can’t get back. 

“The world that we live in at the moment, you don’t know when you’re going to see your family these days. Going back home, seeing my nan, my brother, my mum it was good to just switch off from football and live a family life for a while.”

Born in Launceston, Atkinson is one of relatively few Tasmanians in the A-League, beginning his footballing journey in a team coached by mother Kristy at local club Riverside Olympic.

His family’s ties to Windsor Park run deep, the defender telling The Examiner in 2018 that “Olympic was my junior club, my whole family played there – uncles, my mother and now my younger brother, my nan was the treasurer – so I was always around.”

Impressing at Olympic, his next step arrived when he moved to Hobart as a 14-year-old to play for the Tasmanian NTC program.

Atkinson in action with Melbourne City
Photo: Melbourne City

Yet while this opportunity did entail significant sacrifice on the part of he and his family, it also didn’t guarantee much more in the way of opportunity: the state’s lack of representation on the national stage constricting pathways for those across Bass Strait. 

In such an environment, Atkinson needed a bit of luck to fall his way — as well the wherewithal to not throw away his shot. 

“At the start of 2015, I did my A-licence with the Tasmania NTC coach, [former Ipswich Town player] Kenny Weston,” former City youth coach Lachlan Armstong said. 

“So we organised at that course for them to come over and play a few games.

“Kenny had worded me up about some kids that had some potential and he always talked about this kid Nate; how he was already mixing it against adults when they played friendlies against adult teams down in Tassie. 

See Also: Crystal Palace’s Jay Rich-Baghuelou impresses ahead of Tokyo Olympics

“He ripped us up in 15 minutes and scored a hattrick. I remember us going up to the office after the game and saying, ‘you should have seen this kid that’s scored three crackers’ — because they were all amazing goals.

“From that moment on we sort of started making moves to see how we could get him over.”

Atkinson hadn’t simply feasted upon a poor academy side in his sliding-doors moment; future Socceroos Denis Genreau and Metcalfe already in City’s 1999-born stable at that point, as well as now Adelaide United shot-stopper James Delianov.  

“It was a bit of a shock to my system,” Atkinson recalled. “Back then I was playing as a ten or an eight and then in the first twelve seconds, I dribbled from kickoff and scored a goal. I think that raised a few eyebrows and it went from there.

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“There’s a lot of talented players [in Tasmania] but I was one of the lucky ones to get out and get noticed. If you really want to make it you’ve got to leave Tasmania at the moment. But it’s always a huge honour to represent Tasmania in that way as well.”

Now, five years on from his move to the mainland and having evolved into an attack-minded and relentless right-back that nonetheless retains the instincts of his midfield days, Atkinson looms as the Apple Isle’s best chance at establishing a constant presence in men’s national teams for years to come. 

And after working in tandem with City trainers Andrew McKenzie and Raffaele Napoli and Football Australia S&C guru Andrew Clarke, he is also primed to play some role, be it starting or off the bench, in City’s semifinal against Macarthur FC on Sunday. 

“[Nate] has an x-factor, he’s a great dribbler. Albeit, he’s a bit mental,” City captain Scott Jamieson said. 

“His head can go off and wander but there’s no doubt about it, you’ve heard key staff of the national team talk about him as a player of importance.”

Hobart-born former Cercle Brugge and Marconi defender Dominic Longo the only other Tasmanian to have ever featured in men’s Olympic football, Atkinson would be the first Launcestian to represent the Olyroos should he be selected at the end of next week, as well as add to the numbers of a state looking to improve on the 11 athletes sent to Rio in 2016.

See Also: Last chance for Olyroos as Olympic dreams come down to the wire

“[The Olympics] was a huge motivation,” Atkinson,  whose dreams of Tokyo were already saved once after COVID delayed the Games past the end of a national team’s suspension, said. “When I first [injured the hamstring] I thought that was my hopes of the Olympics done. 

“But when you slowly go through the processes of rehab and you get to the six-week mark you sort of use that bit of extra motivation to really work hard and put yourself in the best position possible to start playing again and put your name out there.” 

Atkinson with City’s 2020-21 Premership Trophy
Photo: Melbourne City

“You grow up watching the Olympics – Usain Bolt, Sally Pearson and these big-name Olympians — not even in the sense of football.

“For me, it would mean the world and also mean the world to my family. I think we all do this not just for ourselves but for our families and I think it would be a big reward not just for myself but for all the sacrifices they’ve done in the past.”

And despite the stiff competition from the likes of Adelaide United’s Ryan Strain and Virtus Entella’s Gabriel Cleur, dreams of Tokyo remain alive for Atkinson. 

100%, [Atkinson] is on the long list,” Arnold said on Friday. “And there’s a lot of A-League boys on that list. 

“There are three games to go, two on this weekend and a Grand Final and we’ll be watching them. It’s not all about one game or that they’ve only got one game to impress us. We’ve been watching them all year and looking at their performances.”

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Header Image Credit: Melbourne City

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