“Daley Atkinson is dead!” was the confusing text I woke up to on August 15th 2016.
Working nights means the stories of the day tend to unfold unbeknowst to you. As a night worker you become accustomed to absorbing big news whilst in a half-awake state, sitting bleary eyed over that first coffee. I’ve been working nights on and off for over 10 years and in that time I’ve woken up to be told that a Pope has died here or a war has started there or a celebrity has exploded. None of that had the effect of the ‘Daley’ Atkinson text. At first in my sleep-riddled state I thought it was a typical Bob typo, it was big Ron Atkinson who was dead – maybe it was wishful thinking on my part – but Google did the needful and confirmed the passing of Dalian Atkinson at just 48.
Atkinson’s name will ring familiar to those of a certain vintage and who still have clear memories of those first, tentative few seasons of what was then the embryonic ‘premier league’ and not the current global bohemoth.
Dalian was a regular scorer of spectacular goals for Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa side that finished second in that first ever Premier League, the club a regular presence towards the top of the division over the next few seasons and winning the League Cup in 1994, denying Manchester United what would have been a first domestic treble.
In a nomadic career Atkinson both spent the longest time and had the most appearances at Villa. When he left in 1995 he would – except for a brief loan spell at still firmly crap Manchester City in 1997 – have likely dropped out of the consciousness of your average fan. Spells in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and South Korea punctuated a playing career that shone in brief white-hot streaks of form but all too often flattered to deceive.
If that last whistle stop tour of obscure footballing outposts seems an ecclectic way to end a career then his start wasn’t too bad either. Before arriving at Villa for £1.7m in 1991 he had already burst onto the scene at Ipswich as a precocious teenage talent, bagged a move to Sheffield Wednesday, been relegated and moved to Real Sociedad for over a million pounds, becoming and their first black player. He had done all of this by the time he was 23.
Atkinson achieved all this in a very strange time for the evolution of the English game. Arriving on the scene in 1985, English football is in the darkest throes of it’s Clockwork-Orange-levels-of-violence phase. ’85 was the year of Heysel and of the riot at Kennilworth road at Luton v Milwall, a fixture considered by many as the zenith of English football hooliganism in the 1980s. You can watch the footage on youtube now, pitched battles with police, bottles raining down from all directions.
The mid 1980s was also a less enlightened time policitically, and racial abuse was still widely tolerated if not accepted on the majority of terraces. The players were still a few years short of the mega-riches that we now accept as the norm for top level players and TV coverage was still more of a novelty than anything close to the saturation levels of today.
This was a tough time where the game was played by tough men, watched by tough men in delapidated stadiums in rough towns. You had to have something about you to make it. To come out of all of that as anything other than a journeyman clogger like Vinny Jones seems impossible; games were often wars of attrition on cabbage-patch pitches. Who could play football on THAT?
Atkinson was one of the players who could. Villa Park was often in brutal condition post-winter and by the time milder March weather hit the mud just clumped together to form a bobbly blancmange. It never seemed to bother or stop Dalian Atkinson. He was a master of adjusting his body shape whilst running to protect the ball but also drive forward at the opposing player. Standing over 6 feet and with a big barrell-chested frame he was capable of slaloming through opposition defences using his combination of skill, strength and pace.
In fact, you don’t even need to take my word for it. The best thing about 2016 is the amount of football from 1993 you can watch easily. Here’s the goal that sums up both Dalian and the changing of the era. Rain? Check. Mud? Check. Sparsley populated stand? Check. Open terrace where the away fans are getting pissed on? Check. Fantastic, off the cuff ‘umbrella man’ celebration? Check!
As a player his crowning moment was his role in League Cup win in 1994. He scored vital last minute goals in both legs of the semi-final and turned in an incredibly disciplined performance in the final from a deeper position, whilst also scoring the first goal in a 3-1 win. It was a performance that while integral to Aston Villa’s success is also bittersweet; a glimpse of the player he could have been and the career he could have had.
That he would be gone from the club within a year seemed unthinkable but by 1995 there had been big changes for both club and player.
The arrival of ‘new money’ in the premier league saw not only Manchester United stretch further out ahead but Blackburn, Newcastle and a resurgent Liverpool and Leeds soon saw Villa back among the throng of top-division also-rans. After a poor run of form Big Ron was sacked and with injuries mounting Dalian moved to Turkey not long after Brian Little took over at Villa Park.
He was one you always wondered about; where did he end up? What does he do now? What if he hadn’t been so uttery, frustratingly, maddeningly inconsistent?
Consistency does not a very good maverick make and Dalian was nothing if not that. The circumstances of his death maybe shadowed the tributes that should have been paid to a player who, when he was on his game, was up there with the very best.
That’s how I’ll remember him, my own stupid fat 13-year old face screaming him on as he terrorizes Bruce and Pallister again or goes bursting through that whole Wimbeldon team single-handedly – making magic in the rain and mud.