From M-League reject to S.League starlet

Balestier Khalsa midfielder Arlando Nicholas Atkinson talks to Gary Koh about his experience in the football wilderness in Malaysia...

Is he the one that got away? Arlando Nicholas Atkinson is just glad to get his professional career started in earnest with Singapore professional league side Balestier Khalsa.

In just over a month into his half-year contract, the 19-year-old British-Japanese midfielder has already registered three senior appearances for the first team in the S.League and League Cup despite being signed for the feeder reserve side.

In a recent meeting with FourFourTwo before a training session at his club’s home ground, the Toa Payoh Stadium, Atkinson spoke about his pleasant surprise at the upward trajectory his budding football career had taken since arriving in Singapore.

“It was pretty fast in Singapore; once Balestier wanted me for a one-week trial, I came down and everything went smoothly from there,” Atkinson said.

Credit: Andrew Lim & Balestier Khalsa

The road taken thus far has not been an easy one. Having aspired to be a footballer from a young age, his football education began with the Kuala Lumpur Youth Soccer Academy and was further enhanced through frequent trips to various overseas summer football camps, including the world-famous Bobby Charlton Soccer and Sports Academy.

When he was 15, he packed his bags and left for Spain in pursuit of an enriching experience that would enhance his game. Through the international football and education boarding school company EduKick, he spent the next three years with Spanish third-tier side AD Colmenar in the Under-18 league.

Following his return to Malaysia after his Spain sojourn in 2013, his father’s good friends, Astro SuperSport pundit Abbas Saad and former S.League player Peter de Krester, arranged for him to train with Malaysia Super League outfit Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (ATM).

Atkinson impressed head coach B. Sathianathan ebough to be given a spot in the first team of the Gladiators and was awarded a first-team contract.

“Abbas and Peter recommended me to train with Sathia because he has a reputation of grooming young players and pushing them up into first-team football,” he recalled.

“I was interested because I had heard of the fantastic things he did with the Malaysian youth with his time in the national team and was doing the same at club level.”

But his registration hit a major snag due to regulations stipulated by the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM).

To play in the Malaysian professional leagues, a local player has to be a Malaysian citizen and an import has to have a prior track record of having played at least in the top-flight from another country as a professional.

While Atkinson has been living in Malaysia for all his life, aside from his three-year stint in Spain, he is not a Malaysian citizen, which effectively rendered him ineligible to feature as a local.

In a similar case, Kelantan midfielder Brendan Gan was only cleared to play as a local in the Malaysia Super League midway this season after the former Sydney FC midfielder obtained a Malaysian passport. 

Even if he were slightly older and played as a professional in the Colmenar first-team, the Spanish side would need to at least feature in the second-tier, Liga Segunda, for him to be considered as a foreigner under FAM league regulations.

The red-tape caught him by surprise and he was restricted to only training with the first team and playing in unofficial friendly matches for the club.

“To be honest, I was pretty stunned and disappointed by the decision,” he lamented. “ATM was really a big step for me, especially when I got to train and learn from seasoned professionals and pick up the finer points from imports like Marlon (Alex James) and Bruno (Martelotto) had been invaluable.”

Atkinson and his family were hoping for a turnaround in fortunes, but after a futile year-and-a-half wait, it was time to take action. “When I came home from Spain, my main motivation then was to be closer to my family,” he explained.

“However, I wanted to play competitive football and needed to get playing time, so I had to make a decision to look for a new club to get the minutes.”

Credit: Weixiang Lim

With the help of Abbas and de Krester, he landed a trial with Balestier, where the coaches were instantly impressed and eager to sign him for the remainder of the current S.League season.

The Singapore league regulations stipulate that outfield imports only need to pass a fitness test run of 2.4 kilometres under 10 minutes to be cleared to play in domestic matches. There is no other restriction on prior background here.

Using his physical frame and game intelligence, he has since more than held his own in the Balestier central midfield against older and more experienced opponents.

He was deemed good enough to be handed his professional debut against Steve Kean’s Brunei Duli Pengiran Muda Mahkota (DPMM) in a 2-2 draw in the League Cup last month.

Presently staying with de Krester’s mother-in-law, the young midfielder has praised the exposure and guidance he has been given under current club head coach and former Kelantan midfielder Marko Kraljevic.

“Marko has been excellent to me and he has been giving me chances to play,” he said. “The players here treat me as one of their own and I am enjoying every minute of my experience here so far.”

While Atkinson is presently enjoying his time with Balestier, he is keeping his options open at the expiry of his current contract and has not ruled out a further extension after the conclusion of the current campaign.

Another crack at professional football in Japan remains a possibility too as he had previously trialled unsuccessfully at various J-League third division clubs in the winter last year.

But having followed ATM’s fortunes in the Malaysian competitions this season, his heart remains indebted to Sathianathan for giving him his first chance in professional football even though bureaucratic red tape denied him a debut there.

“Sathia has been one of the best football coaches I have ever worked with, and it is in my desire that I will one day go back and play for him,” he said. “He did so much for me, even though I was not a registered member of the first-team. He often brought me along to matches and also fielded me in non-competitive matches.”