The Life and Times of Dalian Atkinson: A Great Talent Unfulfilled

Steve MenarySpecial to Bleacher ReportAugust 15, 2017

David Rogers/Getty Images

He played for his country. He scored the goal of the season. He won trophies in three countries. And he died a year ago today at 48 after being tasered by police.

Dalian Atkinson will go down in history as a player whose great talent went unfulfilled and who met a tragic, untimely death. But behind the sad headlines lies a tale of cars, girls, goals and a happy-go-lucky adventurer who crossed the world looking for a game and new experiences.

He was the first black player at a conservative Spanish club, a party lover who went to a dry Muslim country and the first overseas signing for an unknown Korean side. He was a trailblazer. And everybody loved him.

These are the life and times of the late Dalian Atkinson.

Born in March 1968 in Shrewsbury, England, Atkinson was a prodigious athlete at Wrockwardine Wood School in Telford, where he excelled at athletics and football.

He caught the eye of Ipswich Town manager Bobby Ferguson and made his professional debut just shy of his 18th birthday in a 3-1 defeat at Newcastle United's St. James' Park. Sharp and fearless, Atkinson scored 18 goals in 60 appearances, but he always had other interests.

"Cars and the fairer sex were the way Dalian looked at things off the pitch," former Ipswich team-mate Michael Cole told the BBC last November.

By the spring of 1988, Atkinson was looking for a move and attracted the attention of Ron Atkinson at Sheffield Wednesday.

"I phoned up [Ipswich manager] John Duncan and offered him £25,000, but he said Dalian was in the squad for that Saturday's game against Barnsley and 'I need him,'" Atkinson told Bleacher Report.

"Dalian went and scored two goals. I thought: That's dead, then. A bit later, I went back and offered £40,000—and Dalian scored a hat-trick in the next game."

In July 1989, Atkinson finally landed his man but had to stump up £476,000 (roughly £1.2 million adjusted for inflation).

After moving to Yorkshire, the striker racked up 10 goals in 38 games and was called up for the England B team for a game with the Republic of Ireland on March 27, 1990. His team-mates included David Seaman, Matt Le Tissier and Tony Adams. England lost 4-1, but Atkinson scored a spectacular right-footed shot and could have had a hat-trick.

27 Mar 1990:  Derek Brazil of the Republic of Ireland takes on Dalian Atkinson of England B during a match in the Republic of Ireland.  \ Mandatory Credit: Ben  Radford/Allsport
Ben Radford/Getty Images

The world was at his feet, but the restlessness that typified his career emerged again after the president of Spanish side Real Sociedad came to England looking for recruits.

The Basque club only used local players, but Inaki Alkiza Laskibar was ditching that policy.

"Dalian took his liking," Atkinson said, and he reluctantly sold his protege for £1.7 million to Real, where he joined two other British players: John Aldridge and Kevin Richardson.

Atkinson's arrival was the more significant: He was the first black player in Real's history.

"He made us love him very much from the beginning," Alberto Gorriz said; the former Spain international spent his entire career at Real Sociedad and played with Atkinson. "When he arrived, he was very young and lacked experience and maturity. He struggled to adapt a little to our football, but from the beginning, we did everything possible in the locker room to make it easier to adapt to the team and the city."

Affectionately nicknamed El Txipiron, which translates as "the squid," Atkinson soon showed his trademark speed and unerring ability to score in big games—but also his lack of consistency. His first goal came 23 minutes into a game against Real Madrid; he did not score again for nearly three months after getting injured, but he spent the time getting to know his new home.

In his early Ipswich days, Atkinson pimped up an Alfa Romeo Alfasud with roll bars and a souped-up engine, then traded up to a Maserati. In Spain, Atkinson's £58,000 white Porsche was seen outside San Sebastian's nightclubs as he recuperated.

That December, Atkinson, Aldridge and Richardson were reportedly out until 6 a.m. at the fashionable Bataplan disco on the famous La Concha beach. That night was two days before Real Sociedad were thrashed 4-0 in Madrid by Atletico Madrid. Manager Marco Boronat fined the trio £2,000 apiece.

On the pitch, Atkinson responded by scoring against Barcelona on Dec. 30. He later avenged that Madrid thrashing by scoring in a 2-1 win over Atletico, which handed the Liga title to Barcelona.

Atletico were clearly impressed and tried to sign Atkinson for £2.2 million at the end of an injury-hit season in which he scored a dozen goals in 29 games.

His contract ran for five years, but he left San Sebastian's nightlife behind after Ron Atkinson, who had moved to Aston Villa, agreed to a club-record £1.6 million deal with Real's new manager, John Toshack, to bring his old charge back to the Midlands.

Atkinson scored in Villa's first game of the season, only to be sidelined by injury again. He was soon dubbed "sick note" by the fans.

In March 1992, Ron Atkinson fined him for being half a stone overweight. In the next match, Dalian asked to come off 10 minutes into a game with Norwich City after complaining of a headache and stomach upset.

"I said he had to stay on, as he owed it to me, the fans and to himself," Atkinson told the Daily Telegraph.

Eventually, Atkinson's approach paid off. Dalian began to make his mark and scored his most famous goal the next season in a 3-2 win at Wimbledon—a sublime strike that won the 1992/93 BBC Match of the Day Goal of the Season award.

That effort was a powerful run and audacious chip. Others were equally impressive: long-range shots, thumping headers, solo efforts. Dalian Atkinson rarely did tap-ins.

With Villa vying with Manchester United and Norwich for the top spot, England manager Graham Taylor came to Hillsborough on Dec. 5 to watch Atkinson, who put in a performance that typified his career.

"He scored two blinders, then didn't play properly until Easter," Ron Atkinson said. "If Dalian hadn't got injured at Christmas, we would have won the league."

In February 1993, he had surgery for a stomach injury. Any prospects of an England call-up were gone.

At the start of the 1993/94 campaign, former Liverpool legend Alan Hansen picked six players to watch.

Atkinson should be an England regular, Hansen wrote in the Telegraph, then warned: "Sometimes when you are watching him, you wonder if he would rather be on a beach somewhere in the sun. Other times, he looks like a world-beater. It is really up to Dalian himself; he can go as far in the game as he wants."

But how far was that? When he was fit, he made a difference in big games. Aston Villa would never have made the 1994 League Cup final without Atkinson, who scored in both legs of the semi-final against Tranmere Rovers.

"He pulled us through those semi-finals," Ron Atkinson said. "Dalian was a big-match player. If you were playing Liverpool or Man United, it was no bother, but if you were going away to Exeter in the cup, you had a problem. I remember once going to Exeter, and we shouldn't have bothered taking him."

Dalian lived up to his reputation in the final against Manchester United, scoring the opening goal in a 3-1 victory, but he was soon on his travels again.

He missed Villa's departure for a 1994 pre-season tour of South Africa because of what was described as "personal problems." When Ron Atkinson left and was replaced by Brian Little, the striker fell out of favour.

By March 1995, Dalian was yearning for a return overseas. His next stop was Turkey.

Atkinson's old Villa strike partner, Dean Saunders, was at Galatasaray, and the club's manager, Graeme Souness, considered reuniting the duo.

"Souness had just signed Dean and [Barry] Venison," Ron Atkinson said, "and he rang me about Dalian, but I said, 'Souie, if you want someone who doesn't stop running, don't bother.'"

So, on July 26, 1995, Dalian arrived in Istanbul to agree to a deal with Ali Sen, the president of Galatasaray's bitter Istanbul rivals Fenerbahce, and their manager, Carlos Alberto Parreira.

After signing, Atkinson fell under the wing of club minder Volkan Balli, who was looking after Fenerbahce's foreign contingent, which also included Danish defender Jes Hogh.

"Lots of people were very surprised when he signed, as foreign players did not always come to Turkey," Balli said. "But Dalian always felt at home here. He was quite hunky and had a lot of girlfriends visit him from abroad."

Sen soon realised how to get his new signing to make a difference.

"[Atkinson] was mostly into cars and women," Hogh recalled in his 2014 autobiography Comeback to Life, adding Atkinson was "pushed and lifted by Ali Sen and Parreira, so he scored a fair number of goals."

Atkinson was taken with the expensive Mercedes driven by Sen's son, Adnan, who prior to the all-consuming derby with Galatasaray offered to loan Atkinson his car if he could score. In the game on Oct. 22, Atkinson was undeniable.

Within 32 minutes, he had netted a hat-trick, giving Galatasaray's American keeper, Brad Friedel, no chance with any of his goals.

"After the match, Ali Sen handed him the keys to his son's Mercedes," Hogh recalled. "The car was for keeps."

While Souness and some of his British players provoked negative headlines in the Turkish media, Atkinson's popularity grew after he was photographed next to a bust of national hero Kemal Ataturk giving the thumbs up.

After another spell injured, Atkinson returned and made the starting XI at home to Altay on March 30. He scored in an edgy 2-2 draw to keep his side in the title hunt.

"He was a fantastic player, but he couldn't play all the games because of injuries. When he did play, he made a difference," Balli said.

In their penultimate game, Fenerbahce travelled 1,000 kilometres to play Trabzonspor. Fenerbahce recovered from a goal down to win 2-1 and overtake their opponents in the league. Trabzonspor's fans rioted in response.

Local police could not guarantee Fenerbahce's safety if they left their hotel, so the team stayed inside and partied. A first league title was nearly Atkinson's.

In their final game, Fenerbahce thrashed Vanspor to clinch the championship. The party went on for 14 days.

"Everything was chaos and celebration, music and happy days, flowing alcohol," Hogh recalled.

Atkinson's final game in Turkey was as a substitute in the Turkish Cup final on April 24. He failed to score and was soon off again, this time on the road to nowhere.

Before he left, however, there came the news he was not the biological father of a 16-month-old girl—the result of a DNA test ordered by the courts.

Atkinson returned to the Midlands and was joined by Balli, who was there for Euro 96 as part of the Turkish party based in Birmingham. Atkinson would not let his friend stay in a hotel and put Balli up.

"Every day, he brought breakfast to my room, I think to pay me back for what I did for him in Turkey," Balli said. "That was the sort of guy he was."

Watching Euro 96 was bittersweet. Seaman and Adams were stalwarts as the hosts reached the semi-finals, but Atkinson was 28, and his international career was gone.

Even worse, his club career was agonisingly slipping away.

In June 1996, Atkinson had been linked with a move to Coventry City. That never materialised, as he became embroiled in a lengthy contract dispute with Fenerbahce.

"He wanted to go, but I don't think the club wanted him to go," Balli said.

In September, Atkinson walked out, claiming he had not been paid for two months and was owed £100,000.

He pressed for a loan move and in January 1997 went to PSV Eindhoven, then Metz. No offers followed. The French club's medical showed a risk of injury due to bone damage in his right ankle and signs of a groin strain.

Atkinson and Villa were both at odds with Fenerbahce, and the case went to FIFA. In February 1997, it ruled the Turkish club had to pay Villa $400,000 outstanding from a $650,000 transfer fee agreed for Atkinson.

Fenerbahce was told to pay some—but not all—of the money Atkinson claimed he was owed. FIFA's committee said "neither party had conducted itself properly."

Finally, he was free.

Atkinson scored in a reserve game for Manchester City against York and won a first-team place against Stoke City at Maine Road on March 22, 1997. Could he set City alight and save his career?

There were certainly flames, as a small fire in the North Stand delayed the kick-off by 45 minutes.

He headed home as City won 2-0 and netted again against Grimsby Town in a 3-1 win on April 16, but events out of his control conspired against him.

Before Frank Clark took charge, there were four temporary or permanent managers at City in 1996/97. Each one brought his own staff, so the squad was huge and needed reducing. Only on a temporary contract, Atkinson was easy to release.

According to the Football Association, he was never registered as a professional in England again.

Atkinson turned out for Everton reserves on Oct. 16, 1997, at Sheffield Wednesday and played the full 90 minutes in a 4-1 win over his old side, but he was not kept on. A spell in February 1998 training with Sheffield United went nowhere. His season petered out.

At 29 and desperately needing to revive his ailing career, Atkinson made the unlikely decision to move to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi game was flush with oil money, and the Green Falcons had made their World Cup debut in 1994, but Atkinson's move to Jeddah-based Al-Ittihad was still daring.

A VHS showreel of Atkinson's highlights had found its way to Al-Ittihad's Belgian manager, Dimitrije Davidovic.

"He looked strong, fast and had good technique, so we brought him to Jeddah, as we were involved in four competitions," Davidovic said.

When Atkinson had arrived in Spain, even veterans like Gorriz were impressed by his fitness. Now, by his own admission, he was fat.

"We liked him a lot, but he was not in good shape because of the problems at Fenerbahce," Davidovic said. "It's difficult if you don't play for seven months. In the beginning, he had lots of small injuries, so we made him a special program.

"Sometimes he would do 1,500 sit-ups with a medicine ball. He would say, 'You are crazy. You are going to kill me,' but always with a smile. He had a good sense of humour.

"After a month, he was back, and Dalian was very impressive. He was strong and good with one-on-ones—a showman. When he scored a goal, he would celebrate like a dolphin. One time, we played a big game in Jeddah, and one of the opposition players tried to run through him, but he just bounced off Dalian, and the whole stadium stood up and applauded.

"It was a good team—the most successful year at the club ever."

Founded in 1927, Al-Ittihad were the kingdom's oldest club and successful locally but less so continentally. In a last hurrah, Atkinson helped change that.

The Asian Cup Winners' Cup was staged on a regional basis with two-legged ties until the semi-finals. Al-Ittihad dismissed Al Ahli of Qatar, then Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan to make the last four.

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

The semi-finals and final were staged in Tokyo, Japan. Yet again, Atkinson was up for the big game. Stealing in at the back post, he nodded in from close range after 25 minutes to put Al-Ittihad 2-0 up against Iraqi side Al Talaba.

The look of sheer joy on his face as he embraced his team-mates showed what it meant.

Al-Ittihad went through 3-1 to face South Korean side Chunnam Dragons two days later in one of the most bizarre continental finals ever.

Atkinson played a vital role, albeit accidentally, when after four minutes he collided with Chunnam's keeper, Park Jong-mum, on the slippery surface. Jong-mum had to come off and was replaced by reserve keeper Park Chul-woo, who did not see out the game either; Chunnam had Brazilian defender Maciel, then Chul-woo, sent off.

An outfield player, Jou Yeong-hu, went in goal as the game, 2-2 after 90 minutes, went to extra-time to be decided by a golden goal. Atkinson shot over the bar before Ahmed Bahja won a penalty. His woeful effort came back off Yeong-hu, and the Moroccan buried the rebound.

Al-Ittihad had their first Asian trophy to go with a debut Gulf Champions League title, the Federation Cup and the Saudi League championship. The quadruple-winning Atkinson had scored 10 goals in his last 11 games.

"He told me, 'Without you, I would never have come back,'" Davidovic said.

After the Tokyo success, Atkinson's eight-month contract was running out. He wanted to go home.

Atkinson told the Guardian:

"You always think that you might have lost it, but I realise that I've still got it, and the more I play the better I will get. [...] I feel much better within myself, and the team in the last five matches have seen a better me because I'm fitter and my strength is better.

"[...] I feel much better within myself, and the team in the last five matches have seen a better me because I'm fitter and my strength is better.

"Saudi's been good for me because there are no bars to go out to. There are no distractions. I can just train and relax, and that was what I needed when I left Turkey because the players told me I was fat when I joined the club."

Atkinson said the "niggly little injuries" that typified his career were gone and returned to England in search of a club.

There were no takers, and with no one impressed by his success in the desert, Atkinson made one final attempt to save his career in South Korea, which was set to co-host the 2002 World Cup with Japan.

In 1991, Brazilian icon Zico signed for Japanese J-League side Kashima Antlers. The only foreigners in the South Korean K-League were unknown Africans, Brazilians or Eastern Europeans.

Daejeon Citizen had never signed a foreigner and were holding out for a big name, a player from the Premier League. In early 2001, Atkinson pitched up for winter training.

Choi Kyongdeok, the club's media officer, recalled his "truly impressive playing."

"He was a reckless player and had tremendous speed with great physical fight in the field," he said. "DCFC looked forward to [him] leading us to the championship."

Once again, however, injury struck.

Atkinson made his debut in the Korean League Cup, which preceded the K-League season, coming off the bench in Ulsan. Of course, he scored, netting in the 62nd minute as his new team cruised to a 4-0 win.

Could Atkinson prolong his career?

1993:  Dalian Atkinson of Aston Villa in action during a match. \ Mandatory Credit: Mike  Cooper/Allsport
Michael Cooper/Getty Images

He started the next cup game home to Busan IPark but was taken off. In this third outing came the ultimate indignity. Introduced from the bench at Bucheon, he had to be taken off.

Atkinson did not play until June 30 because of a hamstring injury he suffered in his K-League debut off the bench in Ulsan. He did not lead Daejeon to the championship. He was sold to their struggling rivals, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, where after two substitute appearances, he was injured—again.

His career was almost over. All that promise from a decade prior had been spent.

He reappeared on the bench at Seongnam on Aug. 19 and got a run-out, only to disappear until Sept. 19, when he finally started a K-League game. Jeonbuk lost 1-0 to LG Cheetahs. Atkinson was caught offside twice, then withdrawn. He never played professionally again.

As Atkinson's playing days ended, his smiles and cheerful persona remained in evidence publicly, but there were surely regrets.

In 1993, Hansen wrote: "What a shame it would be if he sits down in 10 years' time and bemoans the fact that he should have done better."

There were no punditry opportunities for Atkinson. Instead, he set up an agent's business, Players Come First, and returned to some of his old stomping grounds.

"Five or six years ago, Dalian came to Turkey to see me," Balli said. "He stayed in the Fenerbahce hotel. He said he was doing agent's business. I didn't see any, but people still recognised him and were pleased to see him."

In January 2011, Atkinson set up a Twitter account. His opening post: "Hey tweeps, thought I'd get involved. Follow me to stay in touch with my life."

The profile photo shows Atkinson the dandy, his hat lodged at a rakish angle.

After 28 tweets in a year, he went silent before returning in January 2014 to write a final prophetic message: "See you later guys. It's been emotional!"

He never deleted the account.

In 2015, Atkinson's player consultancy business failed. The last accounts in 2013 show liabilities of more than £80,000. Four directors resigned that year. When the business was dissolved in November 2015, Atkinson was the only person involved.

In 2015, Atkinson got back in touch with Al-Ittihad assistant manager Hassan Khalifa to ask for details of his games and goals in that incredible quadruple-winning season. Khalifa never found the records.

A year later, his health deteriorating rapidly and his mental health in question, Atkinson was dead.

His death was greeted with an outpouring of media coverage, but there was little focus on his brilliance—intermittent as it was—on the pitch.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 16:  A  tribute for Dalian Atkinson is seen on the screen inside the stadium during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Huddersfield Town at Villa Park on August 16, 2016 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by S
Stu Forster/Getty Images

"Dalian was [an] outstanding player often [with a] cheerful smile on his face, was a friend to everyone," Khalifa wrote via WhatsApp.

"Many people liked him a lot as a person and a player because he made everyone happy by his unique personal wit and funny acting," Kyongdeok told Bleacher Report.

Everyone had liked Atkinson, but Hansen's prediction had come tragically true.

Two years after Atkinson had hung up his boots, the Times named eight players who "had it all to give but let it slip away."

Atkinson was there with Paul Gascoigne and George Best.

Former Villa striker Tony Cascarino said Atkinson "seemed to lack mental strength." Hogh said Atkinson was "a bit of a difficult child." Gorriz said he "lacked maturity" on arriving in San Sebastian.

The Spain international changed alongside Atkinson and tried to persuade the younger player of his potential if he only trained harder.

"He looked at me smiling with those white teeth and those mischievous eyes and said: 'Bixio, I have what I want, and I am happy,'" Gorriz said.

Under father figures like Davidovic and Ron Atkinson, Atkinson briefly excelled, and subsequent developments in sports science would surely have aided his injuries.

Told about Gorriz's memories, Ron Atkinson laughed.

"That was a conversation many of us had," he said. "He was happy-go-lucky. That's probably why he didn't make the absolute top. He also played in an era when England weren't badly off for centre-forwards, with players like Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand and Alan Shearer.

"He couldn't tear all over the pitch, as he was asthmatic, but I'd rate him up there with Cyrille Regis as one of the fastest players I'd ever worked with."

That quixotic image perhaps sums up the enigma of Dalian Atkinson.


*All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless indicated otherwise.


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