When Kaeden Atkins was a youngster he used to spend selective balmy days on Hawke's Bay weekends watching his father, Wayne, play for the franchise football team in the national summer league.

Now Atkins has firmly grasped the baton from his father to keep the flame burning after becoming the first player to sign with Thirsty Whale Hawke's Bay United to compete in the 2019-20 Premiership.

"Dad's played at this level and I've always been down to his games to support him, so it'll be cool that he'll be able to do the same," says the 18-year-old, who contributed a goal to Thirsty Whale Napier City Rovers' 4-3 victory in the away Central League match against Lower Hutt City on Saturday, and whose Blues will host Onehunga Sports (Auckland) in the Chatham Cup semifinal at Park Island in a fortnight.

Wayne Atkins made his debut for Bay United in 2004. He had also represented the Rovers, having accomplished the double league and cup in 2000.

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"Dad's always down at all my games to support me and the rest of the family are too, so that's cool," says his teenage son. Jorge Akers was the first player to follow in the footsteps of his father, former All Whites striker Marty Akers, making for the first father-son pairing representing a Bay club (Rovers) and the provincial franchise (Bay United).

What makes Kaeden Atkins' signature special is that he is born in the province - and it's a resounding statement from recently appointed Bay United co-coaches Chris Greatholder and Bill Robertson that they'll draw as much talent from local provincial clubs as possible before luring players from outside, including imports, for a national league campaign.

Kaeden, akin to the likes of Karan Mandair, is a product of Central Football's Football Talent Centre programme.

The apprentice builder trained with Bay United, under the previous regime of Brett Angell, last season and had mustered scant but invaluable minutes from four games.

Atkins says the main focus is to help four-time champions Blues clinch the Chatham Cup again and secure a top-four finish in the league, with arch rivals Western Suburbs looking like league favourites with an easy run to end the winter season.

The 4-3 penalty-kick victory over Albany United (Auckland) at Bluewater Stadium last Sunday is his favourite moment to date in his fledgling football career, after making his debut with the side last winter in his third season with the elite club.

He is mindful he has two more years up his sleeve to make the New Zealand under-20 squad but isn't getting too far ahead of himself.

The transition from winter to a summer platform isn't lost on the former Napier Boys' High School pupil.

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"It's a step from Central League — quicker and stronger so it'll be a good challenge."

While his father wore the No 4 shirt, Atkins wears No 5 for the Blues but wouldn't mind claiming his dad's number with Bay United, although he appreciates Greatholder and Robertson have more important things to contend with right now.

"It'll be cool to get No 4 but we haven't talked about all those things just yet," he says.
Greatholder is looking forward to working with him.

"He has worked hard throughout the winter season to push his career on and deserves the opportunity to go on to the next level," he says.

"In Hawke's Bay, we need to create a pathway and culture in which our local players have to push themselves to go out of their comfort zones a bit more than they have in the past. I am excited to create opportunities, and help players like Kaeden do that".

Bay United co-coaches Chris Greatholder (left) and Bill Robertson are already walking the talk. Photo / File
Bay United co-coaches Chris Greatholder (left) and Bill Robertson are already walking the talk. Photo / File

Robertson echoed Greatholder's sentiments, adding he had staked his claim with incremental gains and on the way to higher echelons.

"These players have got to earn the right to represent Hawke's Bay United so they have to challenge themselves at the highest level and Kaeden's done that."

Robertson says Atkins has "fantastic potential" and had developed "some super attributes" in the past couple of years so it will be intriguing to see how greatly he will prosper.

"He's from the Bay, his dad used to play for Hawke's Bay United so it's fantastic a local player has deserved the opportunity because he's worked hard on his game to challenge himself at the highest level in winter."

Robertson, who is a former Bay United skipper and has also led Team Wellington to premiership glory, says Atkins was involved mostly in the franchise youth team.

"He wasn't involved much with the first team last [season], which is surprising given the team had conceded 55 goals — the most in a season.

"He's a centreback and, in my opinion, he's got some good talent but, obviously, it's now a new era so Chris and I recognise him as a new player we want to bring into our environment because we think he'll do well in the national league."

No doubt the Atkins want the Bay fans to get behind them this summer.

Kaeden Atkins started playing for Taradale AFC before switching to Napier Marist at 15.

For the bloke whose favourite player is Spanish international and Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos, going to Italy for the age-group Club World Cup with the Buderim Wanderers - as domestic champs when the Atkins family lived on the Sunshine Coast in 2014 - is a highlight.

His other accolades include making the Tour of England with Football Fusion last year, where Portsmouth had scouted him for trials. This year Atkins was part of a national team Che Bunce had selected to compete at the Under-19 President's Day Tournament in Arizona.

Acting Bay United franchise general manager Andrew Huxford says they will reveal another signing this week.