Non-leaguer’s journey from Leeds United, Blades and Owls trials to potential Wilfried Zaha battle
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Dinnington Town defender Jay Atkin could be weeks away from the start of his international career at the age of 30.
"Me and my dad didn't have much of a relationship so I knew very little about it," he said.
"I knew roughly where he was from but never saw any pictures or talked about it to be honest. When I was about 18 I started to get a bit curious and doing my own research and then when I made contact with my dad as well. It all stemmed from that initial contact."
Like any football mad youngster from the south east of Sheffield, Atkin had a wealth of options when it came to junior football and turned out for Hackenthorpe, Beighton and then Middlewood Rovers, where it all started for ex-Leeds United and Sheffield United man Billy Sharp. There were trials with the Blades, Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds, and then Atkin moved on from Junior Blades to men's football with Matlock Town's reserve side and then Swallownest. International football was never really on his radar until a light hearted conversation with a work colleague.
"I never really considered it and then in lockdown I was in work and it was quite dead, people weren't coming and going and my boss and I got talking about football one day," he said.
"I told him about where I'd played and we jokingly mentioned Seychelles and being eligible. He said you might be able to get a game so I said I might make contact, see if they'd have a look at me. I actually had a look online, there was an FA page and an email address and I emailed them. It turns out the head of the FA went to school with my dad. He had a look at where I've been playing, picked up a couple of little clips that clubs have put online and we agreed to meet up when Covid passed."
In 2022 it was no longer a joke but an option the Seychelles FA were actively exploring. Atkin flew out for a family holiday and met with officials to discuss a possible way forward.
"They explained what they were looking for from me and said they'd get me involved this year as early as they could," he said.
"We've had to go through the dual nationality process. There's been a lot of backward and forwards with that, with my dad's paperwork from when he came over and things like that. The plan initially was to get me over for the Indian Ocean games, a four-team tournament, but it didn't go through in time."
The dual nationality process is now at a stage where Atkin was asked how quickly he could get back out to the island to sign for his passport and train with the squad. In October he will spend two weeks doing just that. In November Seychelles are due to make their World Cup qualifying introduction, taking on Ivory Coast, whose star man is ex-Manchester United and Crystal Palace attacker Wilfried Zaha. Fit again after a recent injury, Zaha is in line for his 32nd cap and Atkin laughs at the mere suggestion that he could find himself marking the 305-game Premier League veteran.
"It's mental," he said.
"It's all moved so fast. We had a family holiday there last year. Everyone has been brilliant, stayed in contact, the head of the FA's secretary checks in regularly. My aunty over there has been great, looking after the paperwork side of things for me. There's a lot going on, a lot of moving parts.
"I'm just going in and expecting it to be a high standard. I've watched a couple of games. It's always different watching on tele but to be fair it looked a decent standard to me. It's a small nation but it's the best of the best there. There's still 90,000 people on the island so the best of 90,000 is still going to be decent. I think 90 per cent of the squad play Seychelles League football."
If Atkin does go on to earn a first cap for the Pirates he won't be the first Yorkshireman or England-based footballer to do so. Bradford-born Karl Hall, formerly of Northern Counties East League Albion Sports, won several caps. Retired ex-Chelsea, QPR and Nottingham Forest defender Michael Mancienne, capped from Under 16s to 21s for England, is one of Seychelles' better known internationals having also qualified through his father.
As the dream edges closer and closer to a reality, Atkin plans to step up his fitness work and will call time on the Sunday League appearances that currently give him a second weekend run out. His family are making plans too.
"My family in Sheffield obviously can't believe it," he said.
"My dad's side of family all live in Newquay and it was them we went on holiday there with last year. They're obviously all buzzing. My family in Sheffield are like 'if you get anywhere near a squad we're all flying over.' If a miracle does happen then there'll be a following from Sheffield."
And though he's too young to quite grasp the enormity of what his dad might be about to do, Atkin's two-year-old son Roman will grow up with footballing possibility there in the background.
"He's kicking a ball around already. I wish I'd done it a lot earlier but if he wants to go down the football route then he's got it as a target. He'd qualify through his grandad already but obviously through me once I've got my passport. That's the main aim of October's trip, to get that sorted finally.
"Right now I just want to focus on training first of all, I'm not getting ahead of myself, and see where it takes me. Hopefully I can get into the squad."