Nathaniel Atkinson won the Joe Marston Medal in the A-League grand final after fighting back from injuries and falling out of love with football.
Nathaniel Atkinson didn't think he'd feature in this year's A-League grand final.
The 22-year-old was thriving as a free-wheeling right-back in Melbourne City's charge to a premiers plate, before suffering a seemingly season-ending hamstring injury in April.
But Atkinson returned the game before the finals, going on to score a goal and deliver a man-of-the-match performance in City's 3-1 grand final win over Sydney FC.
The Tasmanian claimed the Joe Marston Medal in front of his mum, in the stands for the first time in more than a year due to border restrictions - and could receive the "cherry on top" with Olympics selection in coming days.
"A few things blessed me in a way - a few COVID outbreaks, a few games delayed, finals get moved back and then it gives me extra time to come back for finals,'" Atkinson said.
"I was really enjoying my football before the injury and that was just a big kick to the guts. But I worked hard and I got back into the line-up.
"... It's been nearly six years at this club, you've seen the heartbreak through the years and to come out on top finally, it's great."
Atkinson's performance comes just over 18 months after being suspended from national team duties until August 2020 - originally ruling him out of the Olympics.
The ban came after he and three Olyroos teammates were found to have engaged in "unprofessional conduct" in an incident involving a woman in Cambodia in March 2019.
Atkinson then signed for Perth Glory in September 2020, but backflipped and re-signed with City, where he focused on kickstarting his career.
"Obviously 18 months ago everything happened and you probably lose your love of football for a bit as well," he said.
"It obviously affects your football and it was a tough period.
"When pre-season came around this year it was a fresh slate and I think it definitely benefited me as a person.
"... I quickly found my love of the game again, by just enjoying football, and when I enjoy my football I tend to play at my best."
Coach Patrick Kisnorbo, who dealt with Atkinson as an academy and youth player, hailed his personal development.
"To see where he's ended up now - through all the sacrifice, the injuries, the doubts - when you see something like that tonight, it all pays off," Kisnorbo said.