Sunday 4 December 2016

"Natural athlete" Dalian Atkinson one of the Premier League's early stars

Published 15/08/2016 | 14:51

Dalian Atkinson celebrates scoring for Aston Villa against Ipswich, his first professional club
Dalian Atkinson celebrates scoring for Aston Villa against Ipswich, his first professional club

Dalian Atkinson was one of the first true stars of the Premier League era, a homegrown hero who helped pave the way to the global phenomenon of the present day.

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His finest hour was the 1992-93 season, the first after the breakaway from the Football League and one he lit up with his pace, athleticism and eye for goal.

He was the focal point of an Aston Villa side that finished runners-up in the title race, scored 11 times in the first 18 games and produced the division's first ever goal of the season for an unforgettable solo effort against Wimbledon.

Premier League football as a pay-to-view luxury item had been seen as a gamble rather than a guaranteed success, but the efforts of players like Atkinson helped it become not only sport but prime-time entertainment.

Born on March 21, 1968 and raised in Telford, Shropshire, by parents Earnest and Gloria he attended Wrockwardine Wood School and quickly became known for his speed and footballing talent.

His entry in the Shropshire Schools and Colleges Football Association hall of fame notes that Atkinson was "a natural athlete with awesome pace, his capacity to win the game with moments of magic became commonplace".

The notes continued: "Other schools in the county dreaded being drawn against Wrockwardine in the cup competitions."

He signed professional terms with Ipswich at 16, impressing over four years before Ron Atkinson brought him to Sheffield Wednesday for £450,000.

The Owls were relegated in his only season at Hillsborough but his 10 goals did enough to alert scouts in Spain, eventually joining Kevin Richardson and John Aldridge at Real Sociedad in a £1.7million deal.

While there were at least two familiar faces around, Atkinson was breaking ground as the club's first black player.

A popular figure wherever he played, Atkinson's playing career nevertheless coincided with some of football's least enlightened years and he spoke in 2013 about the challenges black players faced.

"Now you might get half a dozen lads making racist chants and the focus is on them, but back then you'd have the entire ground singing in harmony," he recalled.

He left Spain after just a year, with his scoring record and market value still intact, to rejoin his namesake 'Big Ron' at Villa.

And it was at Villa Park that he created his legacy, though injuries meant he never reached the dizzy heights his talent promised.

While he was immensely proud of his solitary England B cap in 1990 - scoring in a losing cause against the Republic if Ireland - Ron Atkinson believes he had more than enough to grace the international stage.

"I have seen players play regularly for England with nowhere near the talent he had," he told the Birmingham Mail, in leading the tributes.

Dalian Atkinson's final record in four years at Villa Park reads 36 goals in 114 appearances but he was renowned as a man for the big occasions and was pivotal to their 1994 League Cup success.

He scored in both legs of the semi-final against Tranmere and, crucially, in the 3-1 defeat of Manchester United in the final. Wembley glory represented the high point, with the next five years spent drifting between clubs as disparate as Fenerbahce, Metz, Manchester City, Al Ittihad and Daejeon Citizen before finally retiring after a spell with South Korea's Jeonbuk Motors.

Life after football proved a challenge for Atkinson, according to his former friend and team-mate Carlton Palmer.

"It can be difficult for players when they finish and I know Dalian found it difficult," Palmer told Press Association Sport.

"Footballers don't know anything else. Dalian would not have finished his career financially secure and he was scratching around doing stuff.

"When you finish as a footballer, all of a sudden at 34 or 35 you have no routine and no structure to your life and that can be a major problem.

"It can be a very dangerous spiral and unfortunately that's what it was for Dalian."

He owned a sports consultancy business, Players Come First, from 2009 until it was dissolved in November 2015 and also worked with community projects in the Telford area.

Speaking three years ago about the Templegate Training football scheme for unemployed youngsters in Aston, Atkinson said: "They look disheartened, as though they're in a dead end and they've had so many knock backs.

"But you've got to keep on going, you've got no choice. You've got to keep trying."

Those sentiments will outlive him, as will his exploits in the formative years of the Premier League.

Press Association

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