He played a huge role in the Finals series and was rightly awarded the Joe Marston Medal – but Nathaniel Atkinson almost wasn’t even out on the pitch.
After missing the start of the season due to a hamstring injury, Atkinson got back to playing some solid, consistent football from February to early May, but a run of nine consecutive starts would soon come to a cruel end.
Atkinson went down clutching his hamstring in Wollongong against the Phoenix on a cold Monday night, and while City’s medical staff refused to rule him out for the season, he looked at long odds to come back and play a key role.
“That injury was a kick in the guts,” Atkinson said.
“I’d only been back for a few months and felt like I was playing some good football, so it certainly wasn’t great to get injured again.”
He even went as far as ruling himself out of the remainder of the A-League season on a post on his own Instagram, but he knew that the Olympics was still around the corner.
“Tokyo was coming up and I used it as motivation through my rehab,” Atkinson said.
“I knew I was pretty much out of contention then because I wasn't going to be playing, so I just worked as hard as I could to get myself back.”
While City staff were always hopeful he’d be back on the pitch to play some part in the Finals, that possibility only became evident to Atkinson during the rehab process.
“When I realised that I was a chance to return for Finals and help the team, there was another added level of motivation for me to keep working hard and to get myself back out there,” he said.
As the team went on a big undefeated run and wrapped up its first piece of A-League silverware in Club history, Atkinson was still there behind the scenes, working hard in his rehab and doing everything he could to get back.
“Nathaniel is a really resilient character,” City Director of Football Michael Petrillo said.
He can bounce back from adversity, which I think is really important if you want to be a top player. Resilience is something you need to have, and Nathaniel's got that in spades.
Bouncing back from adversity is just what he did, and his hamstring got a valuable test in City’s final game of the season where Atkinson was subbed on at half-time. Thankfully, it passed with flying colours, and he was ready to go for Finals.
City’s front three of Nabbout, Noone and Maclaren was set for most of the 2020/21 campaign, but around Finals time, a shake-up occurred. With the former two battling injury and the latter off on Socceroos duty, Atkinson moved from his usual full-back position to the wing, linking up with Marco Tilio and Stefan Colakovski to form a youthful attacking trio.
It may have been Tilio and Colakovski receiving all the plaudits in the Semi Final - linking up twice in as many minutes to see City into the Grand Final – but the performance of Atkinson was arguably worthy of ‘player of the match’ honours.
A week later, with City down 0-1 in the first half of the Grand Final, anxiety started to flood through AAMI Park - but a determined Atkinson was ready for a big moment, and to create some headlines of his own.
“I'm usually one of those players that if we go down, I want to take the lead in a way and try and change the game,” he said.
After seeing the other two thirds of his front three break down the left, Atkinson worked hard to get himself in front of goal as quickly as possible, he recounted.
“I got the ball and took a touch, I thought at the time I'd messed it up,” he said.
“I did a fake shot, then another fake which gave me a bit of space from Joel (King) and then luckily I scored.
"As I shot, (Scott) Galloway was coming down the right so I’m sure that if I missed it, I would've gotten a fair spray," he laughed.
A Grand Final goal is always going to be special regardless of the circumstances, but to make things even better, there was a very special spectator in the crowd at AAMI Park that night.
Mum made it over to watch the game, so it was a great moment for me to score in front of her and of course all of our fans too.
Following Atkinson’s stunning goal, a red card and City penalty followed in an action-packed end to the first half. Ahead 2-1 and with 45 minutes to play against 10 men, any team could be forgiven for getting a little excited, but Atkinson said that was far from the case in the City dressing room.
“The boys all seemed pretty confident but still very focussed,” he said.
We started the second half well which allowed our confidence to continue to grow, and then once Galloway's goal went in to make it 3-1, it was a pretty surreal feeling knowing we were going to win.
Atkinson and his City teammates now face the challenge of building on a great season and going back-to-back in 2021/22. Join the Champions and come along for the ride! Head to citymembership.com.au to become a City Member.