FORMER York City defender Mike Atkinson is now an international high-flyer with the RAF and Belize football team.

Atkinson, who signed first-year professional terms with the Minstermen back in 2013, has just represented his country at the 2017 Copa Centroamericana, making his debut in a 3-0 defeat against World Cup quarter-finalists Costa Rica.

He came on as a 59th-minute substitute in that contest, before starting the next game against El Salvador, which resulted in a 3-1 reverse.

Belize, who sit 163rd in the FIFA world rankings between Macedonia and Moldova, had earlier drawn with hosts Panama 0-0, but also went down to Nicaragua (3-1) and Honduras (1-0), ending their hopes of qualifying for July’s Gold Cup in the USA.

York-born Atkinson, now 22, came through the academy ranks at Bootham Crescent, whilst a pupil at Archbishop Holgate’s School.

He was promoted to the senior ranks by then manager Nigel Worthington and featured in a pre-season friendly against Sheffield United, before making the bench for a Sky Bet League Two fixture against Hartlepool.

Following loan spells with Farsley and Northallerton, though, he left the Minstermen in December 2013, going on to play for Selby Town and Scarborough Athletic, while pursuing a career as a physical training instructor in the armed forces with the help of a qualification he gained from York College, while still a scholar at Bootham Crescent.

Atkinson is eligible to play for Belize, formerly known as British Honduras before independence was granted in 1981, through his mother and has held a passport for the country since the age of 14, as well as a British one.

He has visited family in Belize, bordered by Mexico and Guatemala on the east coast of Central America, more than 20 times during his life and admitted he was “humbled” by the call-up, adding: “It didn’t come as a complete surprise as the Belize federation had previously been in contact when I was at Scarborough Athletic and when I started the joining process for the RAF in 2014.

“I always knew I had the ability to play for the national team, but I still felt humbled when the call came. To represent my country was a massive honour and was something I never thought would happen a year or two ago but, through hard work and graft, I managed to get on against Costa Rica and then get my start against El Salvador with the manager saying I impressed in both games.

“Although we lost both games it was still a great experience to play against some really good players. The opposition were naturally better than our team as all of them are full-time professionals and mostly play in the MLS or Europe, compared to our team where the guys have jobs alongside playing for the country, but I was happy with my performances and didn’t feel out of my depth at that level.

“The hardest part was dealing with the heat as the temperatures were reaching 35 degrees Celsius.”

Atkinson, normally a right back, was employed in a midfield anchoring role during the ten-day tournament with Belize, who have only been playing international football for 22 years and boast a modest population of 368,000, prioritising a defensive approach to their matches.

New York-born striker Michael Salazar, who has played alongside Didier Drogba in the MLS for Montreal Impact, is the team’s only recognised star but Atkinson, who believes Belize would not look out of place in League One or Two, is hoping the Central American Cup can act as a platform for future improvement.

“I feel every player gave 100 per cent, but we can learn from the whole experience,” he reasoned. “The main goal was to finish fourth and qualify automatically for the Gold Cup.

“It was always going to be difficult with teams like Honduras, Panama and Costa Rica in the tournament, but we still fancied ourselves to do that, so it was a bit disappointing not to. Our style of play was defensive in a 3-5-2 formation and I played in a holding midfield role, so we tried to counter when we could.

“However, on reflection after the tournament, the team didn’t think the system was the best and could be improved with a few changes.”

Atkinson has already been selected for the next international against Honduras in March and is hoping to receive a call-up for an under-23 tournament later this year.

He also plays for the RAF, but is now looking for a club close to his Bury St Edmonds base to keep him sharp for Belize duty.

Atkinson went on to stress, meanwhile, the importance of his formative years with the Minstermen and his subsequent career switch in preparing him for international football.

“Andy Snell and John Stockton were massive influences in developing myself during the early stages with York City and they were coaches who were well respected by all academy players,” he pointed out. “I also enjoy the physical element of my work with the RAF and the teaching side.

“My job has also massively developed my mental strength, which aided me during my time with the national team when I was in high-pressure situations.”