There’s too much talk of death right now, the truth will eventually and rightfully come out, so let’s focus on something beautiful: life and the footballing ability of Dalian Atkinson.
We’ve all seen the goal countless times.
On a sage pitch, decked out in a different shade of the iconic claret and blue strip, Dalian skips past a mistimed sliding tackle. His forward momentum from this slight stumble sends him galloping from within his own half to slightly beyond the centre circle. Another slide tackle from a Wimbledon man comes in, but a dash of pace from Atkinson sends the ball beyond the midfielder’s reach. The crowd roars. Dalian is thrown slightly off course by his own inertia and as another midfielder moves in to muscle Atkinson off the ball - Dalian’s gravity pulls him past the nudge as though the player attempting to tackle didn’t exist at all.
Realising their mistake as Atkinson charges towards the box, the final three Wimbledon players yet to be embarrassed attempt to stand off and contain the rampaging Villan. This is the final error.
Taking the defenders lack of aggression as an opening, Dalian lines up a shot from just outside the 18-yard box and in what seems a split-second, he pulls off a pseudo-chip shot from an absurd position. It’s perfectly weighted and it flies past the flailing goalkeeper into the net.
As the keeper lies on his knees and wonders what could have been as the scoring ball rolls out of the net, Dalian runs to the left-side of the goal milling his arms. He realises what he’s just achieved, stops running, starts smiling and pointing at the sky.
Then, like the gladiator, he puts his arms out. Are you not entertained?
Fans charge the pitch and a slight scene of chaos emerges in the away end. A fan rushes to hug Atkinson but is grasped by a steward. Out of nowhere, Atkinson’s partner in crime, Dean Saunders, leaps onto Dalian’s back knocking him off balance towards the charging away fans. One runs towards Atkinson and Saunders with an open umbrella hoisted above his head.
For a split-second, the universe collides in a moment that will never be forgotten.
I was born in 1993, so unfortunately, I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing Atkinson play. Thankfully, I know two people who do. First off - I reached out to my dad. He’s the reason I supported Villa, so I asked him to sum Dalian Atkinson up.
“Ron Atkinson brought him down from Sheffield Wednesday when he, himself came down from them to manage Villa. I think it was ‘92 and he scored a wonder goal against Wimbledon that year and helped Villa to second in the league. He forged a good partnership with Dean Saunders! Now, I can't remember a lot about him in ‘93 but I don't think he had a particularly good season, but one of his best games came in the ‘94 League Cup Final against United, when he was used on the right of midfield - Villa gave them a masterclass!”
I pressed, what was it about Atkinson that my dad liked so much?
“Well, on his day he was the business! His close control was really good, a really skilful player and he played with a smile.”
Stevie Green (his Twitter) of the Villa Review is someone who has mentioned his fondness for the Villa team of the 90’s quite often on the podcast (The Aston Villa Review) that he co-hosts with Chris Nee. His love for Atkinson has shone transparent through his adoration for the Villa. He was the first person I reached out to to piece together a picture of Dalian Atkinson. My Dad had already told me a few things, so I thought Stevie could complete that image of a player I’d never witnessed.
Well, when I emailed him in the early hours of this morning, I didn’t expect this:
“Mercurial is a common word in football now, but Dalian Atkinson was the first dose I got of that. Some might point to Zlatan, others might even point to Gazza, but the first name I’ll look to is Dalian.
It’s already been said that Dalian Atkinson wasn’t a prolific goal scorer for Aston Villa, but the goals he did score were often memorable and his strength, pace and ability for the spectacular, made him a favourite amongst fans, and myself especially. After all, that’s what a mercurial player does, isn’t it? They turn it on and turn it off seemingly at will. ‘If only’ is the most uttered prefix when discussing them, it always adds to the mystery and the romance of it all.
Every club has their own version of this kind of player, and we ourselves have had our fair share, but Atkinson’s tenure with the club came at a genuinely exciting time. The Premier League was in its infancy, Sky’s coverage was actually enjoyable (despite the cringe worthy adverts) and Villa had one of the most exciting teams since the squads of the early 80s.
It’s easy to forget that Villa used to run for titles and win trophies, and Atkinson was a huge focal point of that. During that first Premier League season, he scored THAT goal against Wimbledon. The Dons at the time were a tough side to play, physical and not afraid to dish out a leveller to a flashier player.
But during his brief spell with Real Sociedad, Atkinson was known as El Txipirón (the squid) for his languid running technique. He’d earned this after a game with Barcelona, in which he was tormenting Ronald Koeman during a 3-1 win. During his run against Wimbledon, you could see why. He bounced off players and dodged tackles expertly and the chip, well that’s something we’ve all tried (and likely failed) to replicate ourselves at some point. He’s the player I credit with the original idea to run around sticking a tongue out after scoring, I used it for years after seeing him do it.
Atkinson was vital that season, and it is perhaps no surprise that Villa’s title challenge faltered when he succumbed to injury late on in the campaign. But where he couldn’t help deliver a league title, he made sure he played a vital part in bringing the first piece of silverware back to Villa Park since 1982. His late goal in the 3-1 defeat to Tranmere during the first leg of the Coca Cola Cup semi-final kept the tie alive, and he repeated the feat again in the return leg to take it to extra time.
With passage to the final secured, he opened the scoring at the Old Wembley Stadium against Manchester United. There must be something about Villa players scoring goals off the shin in cup finals. Peter Withe did it in ’82, and Atkinson finished off a sweeping team move to give Villa the lead as he gracefully scuffed the ball past the onrushing Les Sealey. I wasn’t born when Villa lifted the European Cup, but as a child, beating Manchester United was the pinnacle of footballing excellence and that following Monday I was so proud to walk into school after watching Atkinson play such an instrumental part in their dismantling.
He would be afforded one more season at Villa after this, in which injury once again took its toll. As Villa struggled in the league, Ron Atkinson was replaced by Brian Little, and that exciting squad began to come apart. In the summer of 1995, he, along with the likes of Dean Saunders, Shaun Teale and Ray Houghton were all moved on in favour of a younger crop, and Atkinson took his chances in Turkey.
From there, he fell of the grid a little. A few moves to the far reaches of Saudi Arabia, China and Manchester saw him gradually fall out of the game, and eventually he disappeared almost completely. Rumours went round claiming he was doing everything from coaching kids to working as a doorman at a nightclub in Sheffield, but what he actually did was set up Players Come First, a consultancy agency to young players, clubs and agents.
Personally, I was lucky enough to meet him. When I was eight years old, I received a signed ball from the team and collected it from the man himself, along with Doug Ellis and Dean Saunders. I remember wanting him to like me, the way kids do when they meet adults they look up to. He shook my hand, ruffled my hair, called me a handsome young lad and posed for a photo. I was awestruck.
His energy took over the room, as he and Deano (Saunders) bounced off each other the way they did on the pitch. For a brief moment, I felt like I was part of the gang.
And that’s the main thing to remember him for. Not the goals, or what else he did on the pitch. The testimonies from his former colleagues all speak volumes, and if you peruse YouTube for any of the ‘behind the scenes’ videos (of which there are plenty) you’re guaranteed to see him with a huge smile on his face. He looked like the kid you knew from school that never lost the puppy fat around his cheeks, but used it to his advantage when chatting up girls at the bar.”
“It’s a sad thought to know that all your heroes will die someday, but you never expect them to go out like that. I, like many others, will be waiting for the outcome of the official police report, but that’s another article for another day.
We all have our problems and we all have our demons, but I hope that we can all come together to show his friends and family what he meant to us. I hope we can make them feel it. We’re good at that, and that makes me prouder than anything to be a Villa fan.
So while Atkinson wasn’t at Villa for a long time, he certainly stuck around long enough for a good time. I won’t be forgetting him in a hurry, and I hope none of you do either.”
Stevie, I can’t thank you enough for your words. Thanks to him, my dad and the various testimonies of former Villa players, I feel like I almost know Atkinson personally.
I hope you find the peace you craved in your later years, Dalian. Rest in peace.