Dalian Atkinson became Aston Villa’s record signing when he finalised a move from Real Sociedad in July 1991.
The lightning fast striker would prove to be worth every penny of the £1.6 million transfer fee over the next four years as he played the best football of his career at Villa Park.
On what would have been his 52nd birthday, we remember Atkinson as a man, a player and as the League Cup legend he became for Villa.
Few people in the football world would have known the striker as well as his former manager Ron Atkinson, who signed him for both Sheffield Wednesday and Villa. The pair spent a total of four years working together, and the manager’s appreciation for the forward’s talent was clear when he signed him a matter of weeks after leaving the Owls for Villa Park. “He was one of the easiest guys you could imagine managing. He was happy go-lucky, he was always smiling, always laughing,” Big Ron reflected.
Ugo Ehiogu was an up-and-coming player at Villa when Atkinson signed, and he had nothing but positive words for his former teammate. He told The Independent in 2016: "When I arrived at Villa as a nervous kid, he took me under his wing and was bit of a mentor for me. He was kind-hearted, always had a smile on his face and enjoyed life to the fullest.”
“He’s got it all.” Those were the words of legendary Liverpool defender Alan Hansen as he analysed Atkinson’s two-goal performance against Sheffield Wednesday on Match of the Day in 1992. The Scottish pundit went onto say how he’d have struggled to mark the striker, and that few defenders would have relished facing Atkinson at his best.
Ask any Villa fan who has watched Atkinson play and they will tell you about his goal against Wimbledon in 1992. Pace, power and skill: it was all on show during a strike that was later named Goal of the Season. After picking the ball up midway inside his own half, he skipped away from two tackles before beating one Wimbledon defender twice on his way to the penalty area, sending a sumptuous chip over Hans Segers’ head and into the back of the net.
The celebration that followed with a fan holding an umbrella became as iconic as the goal. Villa's assistant manager at the time, Jim Barron, said: "It was an absolutely fantastic goal - as good as you will ever see.
"With Dean Saunders and Atkinson up top, Villa were a force to be reckoned with. “I do believe that had Dalian stayed fit, Villa would have won the Premier League in 1993,” Ron Atkinson would later reflect. “Dalian and Dean Saunders were the best attacking partnership in the league, nobody could live with them.”
When the striker’s Villa career drew to a close on the back of a move to Fenerbache, he had scored 28 times in 88 games.
League Cup Legend
“Three nil – what a decisive result in the first leg of a semi-final.” Commentator David Pleat had just spoken too soon, seconds after Villa were awarded a free-kick in stoppage time of their League Cup tie against Tranmere in 1994. Having been comprehensively outplayed by their First Division opponents, Atkinson changed the face of the tie for Premier League Villa when he rifled a volley into the bottom corner with the last kick of the game.
Atkinson came to the rescue once again in the second leg, just as it seemed Villa were heading for defeat at 2-1 down with less than three minutes remaining at Villa Park. Tony Daley delivered a cross and the forward did the rest with a powerful header that took the tie to extra-time. He stepped up and buried his penalty in the shoot-out before Mark Bosnich’s heroics secured a trip to Wembley.
Ron Atkinson deployed Villa’s No10 on the right-hand side of midfield in the final as they looked to topple a strong Manchester United team, who were heavy favourites to win the match. The move proved to be a masterstroke as the winger ran in off his flank to turn Saunders’ flick past Les Sealey and put his side ahead after 26 minutes.Villa soaked up huge amounts of pressure before breaking out on counter-attacks, and Atkinson was only denied a second goal in the closing minutes when Andrei Kanchelskis handled his shot on the goal line. Saunders buried the resulting spot kick as Villa secured their fourth League Cup triumph and Atkinson wrote his name into the club’s history books.