He’s still a month short of his 19th birthday, but it seems to have taken a long time for Nathaniel Atkinson’s career to come full circle.
Melbourne City’s dynamic full-back has returned to Riverside Olympic – where he began his soccer in an under-sevens side coached by his mum Kristy.
Thirteen years later, although he may barely recognise the plush, brand new Windsor Park clubhouse, he has no problems with the former teammates training behind it.
Like Ricky Ponting reminiscing about the Mowbray Eagles team he broke into long before becoming Australian Test captain, Atkinson is as enthusiastic talking about his former team from the Northern Championship as his current one in the A-League.
“Riverside has definitely helped my development a lot,” he said.
“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.
“Pretty much all the younger boys here I know – Will Coert, Riley Wakeford, Liam Gilmore, Mackye Jago, Cabe Woods, Drew Sykes, Tom Prince … I came up with a lot of these boys and they’ve helped me improve.”
Atkinson’s development has been so swift that it was only a few years ago he was playing in the Northern Tasmanian Junior Soccer Association at Churchill Park – a venue he still frequents to cheer on younger brother Jakoby in a Riverside under-10 Strikers team also coached by mum Kristy.
The Launceston-born Riverside High School student began making Tasmanian junior teams and moved to Hobart aged 14 to play in the National Training Centre under Kenny Weston – later Olympia Warriors coach.
A hat-trick against Melbourne City while on tour in Victoria proved extremely well timed and in 2016 he joined City’s academy side and was soon playing with the reserves in the NPL Victoria.
He made his first team debut as a late substitute for Bruno Fornaroli in a 2-0 FFA Cup win against Peninsula Power in August 2017 and four months later played his first A-League game, replacing suspended right-back Manny Muscat in a 1-0 win against the Central Coast Mariners.
Despite a mid-season ankle injury, Atkinson has since made 17 first-team appearances, was voted player of the month for December by the club’s fans, signed a two-year senior contract in January, won the club's rising star award and capped it all with a call-up to the Young Socceroos.
“At the start of the season I definitely wasn’t expecting things to come as quickly as they did,” he said.
“I’m just grateful that the opportunity came and I made sure I was ready when it did and from then on I’ve just been playing every week and it’s been perfect.
“I think when I made my debut probably after 10 minutes I felt pretty comfortable. Obviously it was harder physically and I was out of breath a lot more but every game I grew and I think I look like I belong there now. So I definitely think I’ve grown into the game.”
Atkinson praised the warm welcome he received from coach Warren Joyce and his players.
“The club are always happy to involve the youth and all the boys have been good. Obviously, they’re hard on you in training but it’s always constructive criticism and they want what’s best for you.
“When I first came in at right-back Manny Muscat was a big help. He’s just left the club now but he’s played right-back for most of his career. All the older guys have been helpful. Luke Brattan has gone around the world and done his thing. People like that really welcomed me into the team as well as Warren.”
A silky winger and striker in his Riverside days, Atkinson has reverted to a more defensive role with City.
“Obviously all young boys like to go up in attack and try and score goals but I think I’ve grown into the right back role.
“Having talks with coaches they know I can play all different types of positions and they like that so in case anything happens they can put me anywhere really. I’ve played right-wing, right-back and a lot of different positions in the youth team, even centre-back at one point but hopefully that was a one-off!
It’s a small state and soccer isn’t the biggest sport here but it keeps growing and hopefully in the future a lot more players will come throughNathaniel Atkinson
“Now I just want to secure a starting 11 spot. In pre-season I just need to give it all I’ve got and hopefully take part in as many games as I can. I want to play every game and win titles with the team.”
As the Socceroos prepare for another World Cup campaign, Atkinson admits national aspirations are also on his radar.
“There’s not many right-backs in Australian football at the moment so I think if I can make a name for myself there it would be pretty good. I’ve been involved with the under-20 Australian team and we go away to the Asian Cup in October so we’ll see what happens there if I go. But I think every young kid wants to play for the Socceroos in the future.”
Atkinson is among a select few to graduate from Tasmanian soccer.
He follows the likes of Hobart's Josh Hope (Melbourne Victory) and Ulverstone’s Jeremy Walker (Melbourne Heart and Perth Glory) into the A-League while Hobart’s David Clarkson played professionally in the English Football League. Hobart’s Dominic Longo was the last Tasmanian Socceroo from 1993-98.
“It’s a small state and soccer isn’t the biggest sport here but it keeps growing and hopefully in the future a lot more players will come through,” Atkinson said. “But at the moment it’s good to be one of the few.”