Football / Coca-Cola Cup Final: Enigma who spells danger: Fierce pace and powerful shooting are the strengths of Villa's key player. James Woodward reports

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The Independent Online
The supporters call him 'Sick-note', the press 'enigmatic' and his manager and team-mates have a whole vocabulary of epithets for him. But ask the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, for a description of Dalian Atkinson tomorrow and he would probably choose 'dangerman'.

It remains to be seen which Dalian Atkinson will grace Wembley tomorrow.

The 'Sick-note' tag - given him by one of the fanzines in the first of two injury-plagued years at the club - is the one that really rankles with the normally unflappable Atkinson. But once again it has been the reports from the battlefields of his lower limbs that have exercised most Aston Villa interest this week.

He strained a hamstring at Elland Road 11 days ago but appears to have won the struggle leaving him, in many people's eyes, holding the key to Villa's chances.

'If there is one player Alex Ferguson would like left out of our side it is Dalian,' said Ron Atkinson, who has twice bought his namesake, paying over pounds 2m, but has also been driven to distraction by the player.

His team-mates are also as likely to give him a verbal volley as a well-timed pass. His captain and former Real Sociedad team-mate, Kevin Richardson, knows him better than anyone: 'He is a frustrating player,' he said. 'There's no doubt that the potential is there but he could improve his game and help the team by doing more when he hasn't got the ball.

'He is quick and strong and scores spectacular goals but he takes a lot of stick over his work-rate. We often have to rant and rave at him in games to help him along.'

Along with his room-mate and striking partner, Dean Saunders, Atkinson, who was 26 on Monday, is the wisecracker of the dressing- room but the laughing stopped after a 1-1 draw at Chelsea at the end of January.

His fairly routine post-match rollicking from the manager escalated to a stand-off in the showers, a transfer request was made but a truce was struck in time to rescue Villa's season. Without the striker's goals in the dying minutes of each leg of the semi-final, Mark Bosnich would not have had the chance to make the penalty saves to see off dejected Tranmere.

They also prevented Villa's season ending up in something approaching tatters, having already been knocked out of the the FA Cup in the quarter-finals by Bolton and under-achieving in the League.

Under-achieving is the biggest criticism of Atkinson although his record of 76 League and cup goals in 212 games in England and Spain is a healthy return for a player who has never seen himself as an out- and-out goalscorer. He has 14 in 40 games this season.

He was prolific in his schoolboy days both in football and athletics where he rewrote the record books at Wrockwardine Wood School in Telford. The years have eroded his athletics feats but he still holds 200 metres and triple jump records.

He also excelled for Shropshire Schools at football but although Villa, Stoke, Port Vale and Wolves had a look, it was Ipswich and Bobby Ferguson who signed him.

'He had all the qualities he has now when he came to us,' Ferguson said. 'My memory of him then was of unbelievable pace and a hell of a shot. You would have compared him to Cyrille Regis, not as good a header, but quicker. Maybe like Luther Blissett, except faster.'

He made his debut just short of his 18th birthday in 1986 but did not establish himself until two years later.

Eight goals in only 13 full appearances from February convinced Ron Atkinson to pay pounds 450,000 for him that summer but when Wednesday were relegated, he was sold to Real Sociedad for a pounds 1.1m profit despite an impressive personal season.

John Toshack reverted to a Spaniards-only policy at the end of the season, which allowed Ron Atkinson, who had just joined Villa, to re-sign him for a then club record pounds 1.6m.

He made only 11 League starts in his first season with a succession of injuries but 13 goals in 22 games up to December 1991 - including Match of the Day's goal of the season against Wimbledon - had England's Graham Taylor drawn to Hillsborough to watch him in action. Atkinson was true to form, scoring two brilliant goals and then going off with an injury that effectively ended his season and was a severe blow to Villa's claims to the title.

But a first appearance at Wembley beckons - the ideal stage for him, says his manager. Will the real Dalian Atkinson stand up?

'The other players and the manager feel that when I'm at my best, the team always does better,' he said this week. 'I want to enjoy myself at Wembley and come back with a winner's medal and I can't afford an OK game - I need a good one.'

(Photograph omitted)