Perhaps more than any other individual moment of that first season of the Premier League, it was this ten seconds of brilliance that drew the line in the sand between Old Football and New Football. Winning the ball from deep inside his own half, he ran a full sixty yards with the ball at his feet, largely untroubled by Wimbledon attempts to win it back, before lifting the ball over the goalkeeper and into the corner of the goal. In the bottom left-hand corner of the screen, we can see the travelling supporters tumbling down the vast open terrace of Selhurst Park in joyful disbelief at it all, at the audacity of his run and shot, of Aston Villa being present and correct in the title race in the first year of this “whole new ball game” about which we’d heard so much. It ended the season as Match Of The Day’s Goal of the Season, and deservedly so. No other goal scored that season so appositely represented the freshly-found confidence that this new division had pulled from thin air.
That goal, scored almost twenty-four years ago, feels as though it belongs to a different universe today, and most of us reading this probably wish with all of our hearts that we had revisited it this afternoon under different circumstances. Dalian Atkinson died from cardiac arrest in the early hours of the morning after being tasered by the police near his father’s home in Telford. He was forty-eight years old. We do not know and cannot assume to know the circumstances surrounding what happened. It is to be hoped – though it should not be presumed – that the full truth behind what happened will come out in the fullness of time and that, should it be established that this tragedy came about as a result of recklessness on the part of any individual, that the person concerned will be brought to justice.
Whilst the majority of us will remember him chiefly for that goal at Selhurst Park in October 1992, there are plenty amongst us who will remember him for other minutae from a lengthy playing career. He might not have had the opportunity to fully shine as a teenager in the declining Ipswich Town of the mid to late 1980s, but Ron Atkinson saw something in him and took him to Hillsborough in 1989, where he enjoyed a fruitful partnership with David Hirst, scoring ten goals even though Sheffield Wednesday ended the season being relegated from the top flight. At the end of the 1989/90 season, Atkinson received an offer that he couldn’t refuse – £1.7m from Real Sociedad in Spain for Dalian’s services. Real had a disappointing season that year, finishing in thirteenth place in La Liga table and just three points above a relegation play-off spot, but Atkinson impressed again, weighing in with twelve goals in twenty-nine appearances for the club.
It was Ron Atkinson who offered Dalian a return to England in the summer of 1991. Ron Atkinson’s departure from Sheffield Wednesday at the end of the 1990/91 season hadn’t been without controversy, with the manager, who had just completed the slightly unusual double of winning promotion to the top flight and winning the League Cup, having stated his intention stay at Hillsborough a week before departing for Aston Villa instead. Less than two months later, Dalian joined him for the second time in his career, signing from Real Sociedad for £1.6m. This period in his career proved to be his most successful, though it would also be the last substantial spell that he would spend playing in England. Over the course of that next four years, he made eighty-five appearances for Villa, scoring twenty-three goals.
Bare numbers on a sheet don’t do Dalian Atkinson’s time at Aston Villa justice. He scored their first goal in the Premier League, an equalising goal Ipswich Town on the opening day of the 1992/93 season. He scored *that* goal at Selhurst Park just a few weeks later. Not only did this win BBC’s Goal of the Season, but another of his goals – scored at Hillsborough against Sheffield Wednesday, of places – also won Goal of the Month for a different month, meaning that he appeared in the end of season run-down twice. The following season, he scored the opening goal for Villa in their League Cup final win against Manchester United at Wembley. We remember the players who play a large number of games, or score a lot of goals. Of course we do. But we also remember those who score at moments of significance, or in a way that will forever burn them into our memories.
Finishing in second place to Manchester United in 1993 was as close as Aston Villa had come to winning the league since 1981 (which was enough of a surprise in itself), and they haven’t come as close again since. These seasons can take on a semi-mythical status, even if no silverware is forthcoming at the end of them. And Dalian Atkinson was leading the line throughout the 1992/93 season, when Aston Villa made Manchester United sweat to become the first champions of the Premier League, of the era of New Football. After leaving Villa Park in 1995, his career was never the same again. There were a couple of relatively unhappy years in Turkey with Fenerbahce, short loan periods in France with Metz and, in his last appointment in England as a player, Manchester City. The twilight years of his playing career, between 1997 and 2001, were spent in Saudi Arabia with Al-Ittihad Club, and then in South Korea with Daejeon Citizen and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
There are questions for which answers are required in the matter of his death. There can be little doubt about that. But I’m not persuaded that right now is the right time for me to pass comment on that. It’s easy to jump to conclusions of any nature in the immediate aftermath of something as terrible as this, and the manner, whys and wherefores this terrible story are not how we should remember him, today. Rumour, counter-rumour, innuendo and leapt-to conclusions will likely be prevalent for a few days, and I’m going to sit that out. There may well end up being protests to be had about this, or wide-ranging social arguments to be had. But not right now. Far better to remember that Saturday afternoon in October 1992. That arcing shot sailing over the goalkeeper’s out-stretched arm and into the corner of the goal at Selhurst Park. Those memories are gifts forever.