On Monday morning, the Villa community woke up to the deeply shocking news that one of its heroes had died an extremely untimely death. Dalian Atkinson was just forty-eight years old and, as if that wasn’t enough, the bizarre circumstances surrounding his death leave many questions which will not be answered for several weeks, pending an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, as the investigating body begins to piece together the puzzle of why Atkinson was subjected to a Taser response from West Mercia Police Force.
This piece is not intended to go into the details of this unsavoury event but to remember an extremely popular player and an iconic figure in Aston Villa’s history. Indeed, social media sites have been awash with thousands of posts containing videos of ‘that’ goal against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park back in 1992. Quite rightly, that effort won BBC’s Match Of The Day’s goal of the season award. It was extraordinary and that goal encapsulated everything that Atkinson had in his locker – pace, power, skill, and an ability to finish in extreme style.
Beginning his career at Ipswich Town, Atkinson would start as an apprentice in 1983 and signed professional terms in 1985. It would be the 1987-88 season before Atkinson began to make an impression, and he broke through into the first team scoring an impressive eight goals in seventeen appearances including a hattrick against Middlesbrough. His promise continued into the following season where a further ten goals would be yielded.
In 1989, the Sheffield Wednesday manager Ron Atkinson shelled out £450,000 to bring the twenty-one year old to Hillsborough. Forming a partnership with the established and prolific figure of David Hirst, Atkinson plundered another ten goals throughout the course of the season. However, despite Hirst also contributing sixteen goals of his own, the Owls were relegated by goal difference on the final day of the season.
Atkinson’s reputation as a pacey and powerful player earned him a move away from Sheffield Wednesday and a drop in division as he caught the eye of La Liga’s Real Sociedad. The Spanish club spent £1.7 million to secure his services. Sociedad had a small English-speaking contingent at this time, made up of future Villa captain Kevin Richardson, who had just transferred from a title-winning Arsenal side, and former Liverpool striker John Aldridge, who had already completed a season with the Basque outfit. Again, Atkinson showed his versatility in adapting to his new strike partner and once again formed part of a productive pairing. Aldridge would steal the limelight with seventeen goals. However, Atkinson was no slouch, notching twelve for himself in twenty-nine games. It was during his time in Spain when Atkinson would begin to carve out a reputation as a player who lived for the big games. Atkinson would score in games home and away against eventual champions Barcelona, including a particularly impressive 3-1 victory at the Nou Camp, as well as against Real Madrid. Atkinson was up against greats such as Guillermo Amor and Ronald Koeman at Barca and the one-club-man legend Manuel Sanchis at Real but was still able to make a name for himself with his impressive performances.
Atkinson would only stay with Real Sociedad for one season. Despite good displays, rumours of poor off the field behaviour persuaded Real Sociedad to sell him and his namesake Ron re-signed him for his new club Villa for the 1991-92 season. A fee of £1.6 million was agreed and Atkinson made an instant impact in one of the most memorable opening day fixtures at Hillsborough against his, and his manager’s, old club. Ron had left the Owls just a week after saying that he wouldn’t be doing so and citing his position with Wednesday as ‘the best job in the world’. At 2-0 down, egg was very much on Ron’s face yet Dalian scored an equaliser from Chris Woods’ spillage just after half time and provided a late assist for Steve Staunton to allow his manager a true moment of glory.
However, that would largely be it from Atkinson for that season, with no further goals to come in a disrupted season in which he would feature just fourteen times. It was the 1992-93 season, the first Premier League campaign, in which he really began to blossom.
The Villans kicked off with three successive 1-1 draws, with Atkinson notching all three of the goals. A dry period of five games followed, when Villa splashed out a club record of £2.3 million to land Dean Saunders from Liverpool. One of our most popular strike duos was born – Deano and Dalian, the D-Men, the Deadly Duo. It bore fruit immediately: as Saunders showed his former employers what they were missing with a brace, Atkinson also netted in a famous 4-2 victory (which should have been 4-3, Ronny Rosenthal…) converting a skewed Garry Parker effort and he repaid his debt for the assist to the midfielder for Villa’s fourth goal.
Atkinson entered a superb run of form and scored eight goals in the next ten games, which included his most famous wonder goal against Wimbledon, as well as the only goal in a 1-0 victory against title rivals Manchester United and a spectacular double against Sheffield Wednesday.
This period showed everybody what a fit and confident Atkinson was capable of. The goal against Wimbledon was absolutely sublime but if you have forgotten or never seen his goals at Hillsborough then I highly recommend popping over to YouTube. Both were absolute screamers, especially his second, which was thumped high into the roof of the net from the edge of the area with ferocious power, whilst his first was a spectacular half volley full of technique.
Injury would disrupt the remainder of Atkinson’s season: it would be April before he played a full game again and there would be no more goals. Ron is adamant to this day that if his namesake had remained fit then Villa would h gone on to win the league. Saunders also seemed to suffer after the loss of his new partner, scoring just twice from February onwards.
The following season was one Atkinson began in fine form again, with another impressive brace in the opening 4-1 fixture against Queens Park Rangers. Both were quality goals, with Atkinson displaying pace and determination to poke home his first whilst lashing in a top corner effort for his second.
Another goal full of power and purpose and an emphatic finish came under the Villa Park floodlights against Manchester United past Peter Schmeichel but would ultimately merely be a consolation in a 2-1 defeat to the champions.
The season as a whole became patchy, with eight league goals scored. Atkinson’s quality could not be doubted: his second in yet another brace against West Ham United was merely another example of Atkinson’s emphatic finishing ability.
This particular season was all about the League Cup, both for Atkinson and Villa. After dispatching rivals Birmingham City 2-0 over two legs, a test at Roker Park against Sunderland was presented. Atkinson was on fire, and would score his third double of the season in a 4-1 victory. His first was a class effort, a flick off the outside of his right boot generating superb power after being played through by Richardson. His second echoed his famous Wimbledon goal as he picked up the ball inside his own half, continued to advance and glided into space before applying an admittedly deflected shot which looped over the goalkeeper.
Atkinson would also help himself to the only goal of the game in the next round in a tough tie at Highbury against Arsenal, with a composed one-on-one finish. Atkinson’s importance to that Cup run had only just begun.
Villa would return to North London to beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1, yet the real drama came in the semi-final at Prenton Park against Division 1 side Tranmere Rovers. The Villans were outplayed and looked to be carrying a deficit of three goals into the second leg before Atkinson salvaged a lifeline in the ninetieth minute. The goal was trademark quality, a low, hard volley into the bottom corner. Out of nothing, that made the score 3-1 and hope still remained. The second leg would see Villa take a 2-0 lead, enough to go through on away goals. Atkinson’s former Real Sociedad striker partner John Aldridge would be a fly in the ointment and scored to regain Tranmere’s advantage. A goal was needed, yet not forthcoming despite sustained pressure until the eighty-seventh minute, when Tony Daley crossed in a ball that Atkinson nodded home to send the Holte End into hysterics. Atkinson would also convert his spot kick in the ensuing penalty shootout and the Villa boys were off to Wembley.
Of course, an absolutely monumental day was enjoyed against overwhelming favourites Manchester United in the final. Atkinson was the catalyst, scoring the first goal, nipping in and, with the deftest of touches, putting the ball past the oncoming Les Sealey. Atkinson was denied a second when Andrei Kanchelskis handled on the line, with the penalty being converted by the other D-Man, as Saunders made the final score 3-1.
In all, Atkinson plundered six goals in that year’s League Cup competition. He was instrumental in ensuring Aston Villa reached the final and set us on our way when we got there. His contribution to our success should never be underestimated or forgotten: without his goals, the history books would read very differently.
A difficult 1994-95 season would follow and Atkinsons Ron and Dalian would soon be moved on. Dalian would join Turkish giants Fenerbahce for £1.7 million, where rediscovered some form, scoring ten goals in twenty one games. His career would wind down with loan moves to Metz and Manchester City and spells in Saudi Arabia and South Korea.
In many ways, that goal at Wimbledon often paints Atkinson as a one goal wonder. It’s certainly the first thing that he will be remembered for. However, for me, his importance in our 1994 League Cup victory is absolutely crucial and, despite the centre of his talent focusing on that rainy afternoon at Selhurst Park, many of his goals were spectacular and are deserving of just as much coverage at this extremely sad time. The involvement of the original wally with a brolly will ultimately help formulate the lasting image of At yet the picture of Ron and Dalian Atkinson with that League Cup is such an iconic moment, especially for a generation of thirty somethings like myself who were impressionable ten year olds at the time. There was much more to Atkinson than just that one goal.
The news of Atkinson’s passing is extremely sad and my thoughts are with his loved ones at this difficult time. Hopefully, the circumstances will be explained in due course and appropriate action taken. It’s fair to say that Dalian has earned a place as a Holte Ender in the sky. Rest in peace, Dalian, and thanks for the memories.