It’s Friday the 3rd of October 1992. In a single motion, Dalian Atkinson brings the ball down on his right foot, swivels and accelerates away from the Wimbledon midfield with the pace and grace of a player destined for great things. In less than thirty three seconds time, Atkinson will have scored the Premier League’s maiden Goal of the Season. In the moments preceding a flailing Hans Segers, Atkinson slaloms past the Wimbledon midfield with such ease that it’d make Mousa Dembele blush. Then there’s the finish. The softest of touches to lift the ball beyond Segers, struck from outside the box. It is a goal most beautiful and one that stands the test of time.
It’s Tuesday the 15th of October 2016. In a single motion, Dalian Atkinson is brought down to the ground at the third attempt by a taser. In thirty three seconds time, Atkinson will ebb away from consciousness. Unable to free himself from the press of the police officers, he is struck several times with such ferocity, lace marks were visible on his skin. In just over one hour, Atkinson will be unable to be revived by doctors. It is a death most tragic and one that sickeningly, is a sign of our times.
The sad duality of a player often untouchable when in motion, only to be stopped by an inhuman force, cannot be lost. His finesse and graceful movement with the ball, juxtaposed with the callous immobility of his final moments is a terrible yet immensely poignant image and one that cannot be forgotten.
The trial surrounding his death is currently being played out in the courts as many anxiously await the outcome of what was the eighteenth death by tasering in the U.K since 2006. His death and the manner in which his life was taken can be no better encapsulated by the thoughtful and articulate words of the late Ugo Ehiogu, who spoke at Atkinson’s funeral.
While solicitors and judges metre out the final harrowing moments of Atkinson’s death, perhaps it is the role of football and it’s fans to ensure parity. To ensure that the enduring memory of this human being is that of a sublimely skilled footballer who once rinsed Nando and Koeman and not that of a man who’s death, when broken down, bears the horrible similarities of the death of George Floyd.
Dalian Atkinson blazed trails. More than many fans realise. A player who twice moved for over a million pounds in the early 90’s was a rarity, and yet, the Sheffield Wednesday forward moved to Real Sociedad in the summer of 1990 for a fee of £1.7 million. At the time, the world record was £8 million for a certain ponytailed genius who swapped violet for monochrome. However, back in the Basque region of Spain, Atkinson would embark on a most unusual partnership, in the most unusual of places, with John Aldridge of Liverpool and, later, Republic of Ireland fame. Between the two of them, they would notch up 29 league goals with Atkinson bagging 12 non-penalty goals in 23 appearances in the 1991-1992 La Liga season.
His goal in the 3-1 win against Barcelona is something special indeed. A goal not any forward could score, and one that Atkinson converted with rude aplomb. Marshalled by Koeman and Nando, Atkinson holds them off, as the ball drops between them, he manipulates it once with his head, next a velvet touch with his right foot, shifting it rapier-quick onto his left, then slams the ball into the roof of the net. Alongside a slew of goals for Real Sociedad, Atkinson also became the first black player for the Basque club.
Then came his return to England, this time for £1.7 million in a deal which he played a pivotal role in making happen. Unknown to many, Atkinson spoke sufficent Spanish and ensured clarity between both parties when it came to the finer points of contracts. His emergence as a talent to watch was cemented in a player focus section on Match of the Day, when Alan Hansen, who knew a fair bit about quality players, described him as having everything.
In Trainspotting, there’s the scene on the field where Sickboy wielding an air rifle is describing to Renton how some people have it, then it’s gone. And when it’s gone, it’s gone forever. ‘‘It’ being perhaps that internal mojo, that aegis that exists inside us and awakens our brilliance.
Atkinson had it and lived it with joy. He opened Aston Villa’s account of Premier League goals with a close range finish against Ipswich Town. Footage of him and his fellow Villa players pre match in the 1994 English League Cup final against Manchester United, reveals a funny, confident and silly young man; one who talks to the camera, a player who jokes with Paul Ince about the cut of his suit as the players ingle together on the Wembley turf, prior to kick-off.
And he was a player who brought the goods, as his sublime right foot finish completed a beautiful opening move for Villa, with the Saunders assist, a thing of genuine beauty. Atkinson would go on to win the penalty for his Welsh strike partner to convert; which when watched in slow motion indicates the technique allayed with speed of thought as he sought to slice the ball into the right side of the goal only for Dennis Irwin to block it with his arm.
Villa ran out 3-1 winners and it would stand as Atkinson’s only silverware.
The are questions of which goal or goals can be considered his most memorable as the legendary two legged affair against perennial giant-killers Tranmere Rovers in the semi-final of the League Cup, saw Atkinson drag the Midlands team into the final with a performance of the ages. With Tranmere 3-0 in the dying seconds of the first leg (played out on a wonderfully ripped up pitch), the ball drops to Atksinon in a crowded box from Richardson’s free-kick, and in the blink of an eye, it’s in the back of the net. Tranmere stood on the precipice of greatness for 11 days until the replay. There, they held on for 87 minutes until that man struck again, this time a beautiful header from a whipped in cross from Tony Daley to level the affair 4-4. Villa would win the tie 5-4 on penalties, as Tranmere, led by none other than John Aldridge, fell at the last hurdle.
Despite the memorable goals against Tranmere Rovers, despite the wonderful deft finish past Seeley and a trundling Steve Bruce in the final, and despite that goal against Wimbeldon, Atkinson’s world was slowly crumbling. He watched on as injuries and sliding door moments halted his brilliance. Out went ‘Big’ Ron Atkinson, in came Brian Little and that was the end of Atkinson’s fairytale as a Villain.
His three seasons with Aston Villa should have been the building block for Atkinson to grow into his greatness, but sadly they became his highpoint. His sale along with Dean Saunders to Fenerbache failed to ignite despite 10 goals in his debut and from there only loan spells and ever wider searches for a club to settle at.
His statistics of 22 goals and 11 assists for Villa when totalled, are equal to that of the time in seconds it took for police officers to render him immobile and unconscious. As fans of the game we can choose how Dalian Atkinson is remembered. We can choose to herald his moments of greatness and challenge those who may wish to focus only on those last days of a man who found himself mentally and physically unwell and in need of support.
Let us remember him as a player who defined a season, touched greatness and danced across muddy pitches. Let him be forever captured in that topsy-turvy moment where post wonder goal, as Dean Saunders clambered onto his back, a fan in a moment of heightened excitement proffered an umbrella to the duo, to which Saunders duly took, holding aloft as he shielded Atkinson from the rain.
Sometimes, just for a moment, it’s there; and then, in the blink of an eye, it’s gone.
Treasure it, live it, care for it. Life is the most precious thing.