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Old 23-06-21, 03:59 PM   #9864
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The scene for the past two months was Birmingham Crown Court, a building located just a few miles away from where Dalian Atkinson used to light up Villa Park.

Position yourself high enough around the surrounding area and you’ll see the famous old stadium. Visit Villa Park on a match day and the former striker’s name is still chanted loud and clear.

For the past two months in the courtroom, however, the mood has been markedly different.

It was there that the harrowing final moments of Atkinson’s life were revealed in excruciating detail over a seven-week trial that concluded today with West Mercia Police Pc Benjamin Monk found guilty of the manslaughter. He was cleared of murder.

Pc Monk is the first officer convicted of manslaughter during the course of his duties in over three decades.

Jurors continue to deliberate on an assault charge against Monk’s colleague Pc Mary Ellen Bettley-Smith.

Some members of Atkinson’s family came to court every day and listened to it all. Every detail.

They heard how, on the day of his death back in August 2016, he was Tasered by Pc Monk for 33 seconds — six times longer than is standard — and kicked at least twice, leaving bootlace prints on his forehead.

Atkinson, pictured with Jamie Redknapp, Paul Ince and Gary Speed (Photo: Stevie Morton/Allsport/Getty Images)
Atkinson was just 48 when he was killed.

By that time, he was a shadow of the fit and healthy Premier League footballer who started out at Ipswich Town before moving to Sheffield Wednesday, Real Sociedad and then Villa.

It was back in 2012 when he was diagnosed with hypertension as well as heart and kidney problems. The dialysis treatment that he would subsequently receive made him feel tired and drained.

His state of mind had also turned erratic in the hours leading up to his death.

Atkinson was due to receive private medical treatment for his kidney problems in the days before he died but was convinced he was going to be killed. In the early hours of August 15, 2016, he visited the home of his brother, Paul, telling him that he was “plotting against the wrong person”.

The former striker, who the court heard was “not in his right mind”, then went to the Telford home of his 85-year-old father, Ernest, where he asked why he and the rest of the family were plotting to kill him. Ernest Atkinson recalled his son saying: “I’m alive, I’m the Messiah, and I’ve come to kill you.”

The loud and disturbing behaviour promoted concerned neighbours to call the police. When Pc Monk and Pc Bettley-Smith — who were in a relationship at the time — arrived, they claimed their deployed force was in self-defence.

Pc Monk, who broke down in tears during parts of the trial, claimed he was scared of Atkinson’s “irrational and aggressive nature”.

The trial heard Pc Monk had discharged his Taser three times at Atkinson, twice unsuccessfully, but on the third time he overrode the system, holding down the trigger for 33 seconds — more than six times the standard deployment.

After he was Tasered, Atkinson collapsed in the road in Telford and died 90 minutes later after going into cardiac arrest.

Pc Monk claimed to have no recollection of placing his foot on Atkinson’s head. However, he admitted he must have kicked the former Villa player twice in the forehead, as bootlace prints proved he had.

The officer maintained his actions were lawful self-defence. However, the jury today found him guilty of manslaughter.

Atkinson celebrates scoring for Aston Villa in 1992 (Photo: Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
If Atkinson’s death was difficult to comprehend, then so was the picture of a man whose life appeared to be falling to pieces before it.

Former team-mates said he had suffered spells of depression after retirement. He tried his hand as a football agent but it didn’t work. Media opportunities were also limited because he had a stammer so he did not appeal in the same way as other clear and confident talkers.

He was living with a friend at the time, had mental health struggles and had been diagnosed with a serious illness affecting his kidneys and his blood pressure.

Long-term girlfriend, Karen Wright, had noticed a change during his final few weeks alive. He was drained by his health problems and frustrated by the waiting-time to get treatment. It was, however, his claims that “either the police or the NHS” were going to kill him that became the most concerning.

Yet at his peak, Atkinson was a bundle of energy — “cocksure, but a great team-mate” according to one ex-player, and also one of the most talented strikers in the country.

Ron Atkinson and Dalian with the League Cup in 1994 (Photo: Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images)
Former Aston Villa boss Ron Atkinson (no relation) described him as a “happy so-and-so”. He told The Athletic: “There were times when I’d be angry at him and call him in my office, yet we’d always end up laughing together before he left.

“Whether it be his daft philosophies or his stories, I always found him such great company. He always made me smile. Dalian was a very popular guy. His team-mates loved him and so did the ladies.

“In 1995, I told him that with a little work, he could have been as good as Alan Shearer (the all-time record Premier League goalscorer). Back then there was Shearer, Cole, Ferdinand, Fowler and Wright up front for England, but I believed he could be the best of the lot.”

A top finisher with a rocket of a right foot who turned it on when it mattered most, Atkinson was lightening quick, as strong as an ox and capable of producing moments that will be forever cherished.

That he scored the famous ‘umbrella goal’ way back in 1992, is a testament to his qualities.

The pitch was his playground and as Big Ron put it: “You never feared the Manchester United’s or Liverpool’s when Dalian was playing because that’s when he would turn it on the most.

“Getting him up for a cup game at Exeter City, for example, was another matter. He lived for the big games.”

Indeed Atkinson scored in Villa’s 3-1 League Cup final win over Manchester United in 1994.

The image of him smiling in claret and blue with the trophy balancing on a backwards-facing baseball cap has become iconic in Villa quarters.

Supporters don’t forget these things either. When they were allowed back inside the stadium for the final game of the 2020-21 season, a huge “Atkinson” banner was draped over the gates at the back of the Holte End as the trial continued.

What had become of Atkinson in later years was tough to take for those who knew him well.

One ex-team-mate recalled his larger than life ways.

“He drove fast cars, wore designer clothes and looked the part. There were a couple of friends he used to look after financially when he was at Villa. He was that type of guy, actually. He cared.”

He was a popular figure during his time in Spain when he zoomed around in a red Ferrari and enjoyed the San Sebastian nightlife. Graeme Souness was interested in taking him to Galatasaray in 1995 but close friends suggested he wouldn’t be the right fit. Atkinson joined Fenerbahce instead. A friend with knowledge explained: “The owner promised him a fast car if he scored a certain amount of goals, and that was a good way to motivate Dalian!”

Ex-team-mate Tony Daley told The Athletic: “His company was gold and he was such a likeable man”.

Speaking after the manslaughter verdict, Atkinson’s family said: “We are hugely relieved the whole country now knows the truth about how Dalian died.

“While it has been hard for us not to be able to talk about the details of Dalian’s death, it has been even harder to sit through this trial and to hear Pc Monk try to justify the force he used.

“On the night he died, Dalian was vulnerable and unwell and needed medical attention. He instead received violence, and died with Pc Monk’s boot lace prints bruised on to his forehead.

“The fact this case has taken nearly five years to get to trial is completely unacceptable, especially when you consider Pc Monk’s identity was known to the prosecuting authorities from day one.

“By contrast, the murderer of George Floyd was convicted less than a year after his death.

“Dalian’s footballing talent led him to achieve great things in his life.

“Our sincere hope now the truth about his death is known, and justice has been done, is that we can start to remember him not for the manner in which he died, but for the way in which he lived.”
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