Nathaniel Atkinson was on top of the world in January.
The Launceston born winger/wing-back was setting tongues wagging among the A-League commentariat; his youthful enthusiasm, quickness and audacious willingness to run at opponents caught the eye of observers.
Alongside fellow City youngster Daniel Arzani and Perth Glory’s Jacob Italiano, Atkinson was being touted as part of a new generation of exciting Australian footballer, one that would be entering their prime in time for the 2022 World Cup.
The 18-year-old had also just signed a two-year senior deal with Melbourne City, only a month after making his senior debut.
This fairytale opening to Atkinson’s professional career would take a dark turn however, when during City’s 5-0 demolition of Adelaide United on 21 January, the youngster was stretchered off the field with an apparently severe ankle injury.
Contesting an Adelaide corner in the 67th minute, Atkinson came down on the foot of another player before rolling his ankle.
“At the time I thought I’d just jumped and landed awkwardly,” Atkinson recalled.
“But going home from hospital and looking through the highlights, I landed on another player’s foot, and when he moved my foot rolled completely over and then – instant pain.
“I thought I broke my whole ankle, there was that much pain.
“Looking back to how it happened, the way I rolled it, the physios at the time thought the worst before they got to see me – I thought something really bad had happened.
“On the pitch Dazza (Dario Vidosic) was feeling around my ankle, twisting it, and after he did that he was pretty confident there was no breakage.”
Atkinson writhed on the AAMI Park surface for several minutes with the City staff eventually stretching him off.
He took several gulps from the infamous ‘green whistle’ anaesthetic so often seen after serious sporting injuries.
“I was in a lot of pain, was sucking down the whistle,” Atkinson admits.
“Dazza (Vidosic, who continued to console Atkinson as he was stretchered off the field) just said to breathe.
“At the time it was the worst pain I’d ever felt.
“They had to cut my boot off because it was too painful to take off normally.”
City officials immediately drove Atkinson to hospital following his exit from the field of play, with doctors looking to rule out any damage to the bones in the youngster’s ankle.
“The hospital was two minutes away,” Atkinson said.
“The ambulance didn’t come, it was about 3-5 minutes away, so they just drove me there in two minutes.
“I went into emergency and got an x-ray.
“It came out pretty good, no break or anything.
“The next one or two days we got MRI scans, CAT scans and that’s where it showed that I’d ruptured two ligaments.
“Obviously rupturing two ligaments isn’t the greatest, but it’s probably the best outcome compared to what could have been.”
Initial outside reports indicated that Atkinson may have been sidelined six to 12 months with the injury, but internally the prognosis was for a much quicker recovery.
“They say the ligaments that I did are only used for stability, so if you let them heal and tape them up I should be back pretty quickly, compared to I’d done other ligaments in the foot,” he explained.
“Cody (Melbourne City Physiotherapist Cody Williamson) said we’ll aim for five weeks, the Perth game, and that was the game I came back in.”
Rehab began at City’s Bundoora headquarters almost immediately following the incident.
“It (the rehab) was all based at the CFA, first two days coming back I was doing upper body – I was in a moon boot – got the gun show going,” Atkinson laughed.
“Gradually after about a week I could walk on it and then two weeks in some slight jogging – a brisk walk.
“Third week I was getting into running straight lines, fourth week running as quick as I could.
“After four weeks I was back training, fifth week playing.”
Atkinson made his return to the field against the Glory last week, starting at right-back and playing 75 minutes before being forced from the field with cramp.
The ankle, much like that of his City teammate Bruno Fornaroli, still pains him following games and during training, but Atkinson insists that he is not going to let it affect the way that he plays.
“There’s going to be some sort of pain for the rest of the season probably, until I can fully rest it and recover,” he clarified.
“Ligaments take a long time to heal, probably a year, so there’s still going to be a bit of pain here and there.
“I only struggled with match fitness (in the Perth game), I came off with cramp, which I guess is normal after being out for five weeks, but I feel pretty confident with the ankle.”
He will need to be confident, as if he lines back up at right back in Friday’s Melbourne Derby, Atkinson will be faced with the prospect of marking Melbourne Victory superstar Leroy George, who starred in their 3-0 win over Adelaide United last week.
Atkinson previously tussled with George in the Christmas Melbourne Derby, when the Suriname-born winger and his Victory teammates would claim temporary bragging rights after a 96th-minute penalty from Mark Milligan brought them the 1-0 win.
Despite the loss, Atkinson enjoyed his first Melbourne Derby experience, and is looking forward to getting the opportunity to run back out on the AAMI Park surface for what has been dubbed ‘The Decider’.
“I think it was my third A-League game and it was a really good experience,” he fondly reminisced.
“It was the biggest crowd I’ve ever played for.
“There’s a lot of pressure, but it was a lot of fun, there’s a lot of passion from everyone and that’s the sort of games you want to play in.
“They’re the best games, a great experience.
“We definitely know that we can beat Victory, we’re going to have to be at our best to do it, but the boys are confident and we’ll definitely come out fighting.”