Positive milestone for Anton Walkes in Atlanta adventure
26 June 2017|Tottenham Hotspur
From driving on the right side of the road to dealing with extreme weather conditions, sampling new sports and, this past weekend, making his first career league start – Anton Walkes says he’s enjoying an eye-opening experience in America with Atlanta United.
The versatile 20-year-old defender picked up his first taste of senior action with us last pre-season, before making his competitive debut in the 5-0 win over Gillingham in the EFL Cup a couple of months later.
A regular for our development squad in recent seasons, he embarked on a whole new journey in January when he travelled across the Atlantic to link up with new MLS ‘expansion team’ Atlanta on loan.
And it’s fair to say he’s seen it all in the ensuing months!
Used primarily as a centre-back, Anton had the distinction of playing in United’s first ever competitive match, a home MLS clash with New York Red Bulls in March, only to suffer the disappointment of conceding a late own goal as his side lost 2-1.
Never one to bow to adversity, he continued grafting and after further appearances off the bench against Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps, he earned his first start in a 3-2 US Open Cup victory over Charleston Battery earlier this month before being named in an MLS starting XI for the first time against Colorado Rapids in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Operating at right-back, as he did for our Under-18s at times, Anton completed the full 90 minutes in front of almost 45,000 fans at a sold-out Bobby Dodd Stadium as his side picked up a 1-0 win.
Naturally, he was thrilled with how his weekend panned out: “It was a great experience,” he beamed. “Scoring the one goal made the game very hard – it would have been better if we could have killed it off but, playing in a game like that, you have to stay concentrated for the full match so I think I gained more out of that game with it finishing the way it did.
“The clean sheet was amazing as well, especially coming in after conceding two goals in midweek and it was a great step for me, it opened my eyes. I work hard every day and I feel you need something like this every now and again. It’s a good experience and big motivation to keep pushing on and working hard.”
In spite of his relatively young age, Anton has been living on his own in an apartment close to Atlanta’s training ground since arriving in the States. That has meant cooking and fending for himself, not to mention driving around the city on the opposite side of the road to what he’s used to in England!
“The training ground isn’t too far from the main part of the city and I’m in between,” he explained. “Everything is pretty close and I’m probably, overall, 15 minutes away from anything I really need to get to, so that’s a good thing as well. I’m on my own in an apartment but it’s a great experience and this is why I came here – to mature and try something different and it’s been a good challenge. I take full ownership of whatever I’ve got to do. In terms of cooking, I like chicken so any type of chicken I’m always happy with. I just change it up during the week but I have chicken nearly every day! There’s nothing I’m feeling uncomfortable about and I’ve enjoyed every single moment.”
One major new experience for Anton has been the way the weather affects games in the States. Lightning in the area saw kick-off for Atlanta’s aforementioned cup game against Charleston placed under ‘weather delay’ with fans advised to seek shelter, while the team has also experienced extreme hot and cold climes over the course of the campaign.
“This league is so unpredictable,” said Anton. “This week, the weather was unbelievable. It was so hot and we had to have stoppages in each half so we could cool off and get some water, but then you could go to Minnesota like we did at the start of the season, where you’re playing in three inches of snow! It’s all about adjusting – you never know what to expect here, so when you’re on the road and doing away trips, it’s just about making sure you’re ready for whatever comes at you.
"There’s a lot of travelling involved as well. We’ve had a six-hour flight to away games before where we’ve flown to the other side of the country. That’s way bigger than anything we do back home. If we’ve got a three-hour journey, we might get a flight or a train. It’s very challenging sometimes with the away trips because you have to adjust training around it.”
Naming ex-Burnley man Chris McCann, Newcastle-born midfielder Harrison Heath and USA youth international Brandon Vázquez among his best friends at the club, Anton has been able to take in a handful of NBA matches, seeing the likes of Atlanta Hawks and the Golden State Warriors in action, while he’s also had his head turned by another sport.
“I’ve been to watch baseball as well,” he explained. “I wasn’t too keen on baseball at all before I came here, but I’ve looked into it and I’ve had a change of heart. I went with a few of my team-mates, we saw the Atlanta Braves in a home game. It’s only 10 minutes away, they’ve got a big stadium, loads of people there and it was a good time out.”
Sunday’s win over Colorado saw Atlanta, currently sixth in the MLS Eastern Conference, sell out their seventh consecutive home match and Anton says the levels of support he’s encountered at the club have been immense as he continues his development in a senior, competitive environment.
“Everyone in the city is showing very good support and in the league already we’ve got one of the biggest fan bases, so that’s a big thing,” he said. “We’ve sold out all of our home games and set records as the first team to do that, so it’s a great feeling knowing that you’ve got the support of so many people. This loan spell has been a great experience of lows and highs but I feel that it’s made me more mature on and off the pitch, especially off the pitch, which I think will affect me on the pitch a lot more. It’s just all about opening my eyes more to what the real world is like and just adjusting my life to make sure I keep improving as a person and as a player.”