When Darlington-born midfielder Brian Atkinson broke through into the Sunderland first team, he was considered one of the most promising and talented young players to be developed by the club in many years. Denis Smith faced an injury crisis ahead of the home fixture against Plymouth Argyll on Tuesday 4th April 1989, and it was to Atkinson that he turned to fill the gap in the side left by the suspended Steve Doyle, handing him a debut after only three reserve team games for the club.
The debut may have been Kieron Brady’s rather than Atkinson’s, but the Irishman had suffered an ankle injury playing for the youth team the weekend before. In the lead up to the midweek senior match, Smith told Jeff Brown of The Journal that he had no qualms about throwing an 18-year-old straight into his mid-table side:
I’ve been wanting to give some of the youngsters a game, although in this case I’ve really no option. It’s always better to bring them into a winning side, rather than a losing one, but I’ve no worries about putting them in.
Although it was played in front of Sunderland’s second lowest post-War crowd, only a mere 8,003 came through the turnstiles at Roker Park, the game almost got off to the most wonderful start for young Brian, as his low, second-minute shot beat the Argyle ‘keeper Wilmot. He was mobbed by his new teammates in celebration, only for the referee to disallow the goal due to either Marco Gabbiadini or Eric Gates, depending upon which report you read, being in an offside position in the build up.
Nevertheless, his performance won him plaudits from the press and his manager after the match, and rightly so as he was a natural in the centre of midfield alongside fellow youngster Gary Owers. Atkinson’s introduction to the middle of the park gave another local young player, Gordon Armstrong, the opportunity to play out wide on the left, and it was from this position that he would score both of Sunderland’s goals in a 2-1 victory. His performance earned him a game in next two matches, starting in the defeat away at Portsmouth and then on the bench during a draw at Oldham Athletic.
According to a profile by Rob Mason in the Roker Review match day programme in 1992, in Atkinson’s talent and ‘exemplary attitude” had been spotted early on during his youth career at Sugar Hill Juniors, The Avenue Comprehensive in Newton Aycliffe, Bishop Aukland and Durham Boys, and Nunthorpe Juniors in the Teeside Alliance League. He had the opportunity to sign professional papers with Manchester United, but decided to build his career with the Lads “because it was close to home and the set-up was good. It turned out to be a good decision”.
Atkinson’s 17 league and cup performances during the following promotion-winning season won him a three year contract and the Supporters’ Association Young Player of the Season Award, and overall he featured in 169 games for the lads over 6 years, scoring four goals along the way.
The stocky and powerful midfielder’s abilities quickly lead to him being selected to play for England U21s, for whom he was capped on six occasions, debuting against Wales in December 1990 before going on to play alongside fellow north-easterners Richard Ord and Alan Shearer in the Toulon Tournament in 1991, where he featured against Senegal, Mexico, USSR and the hosts France. His final cap for the young national side came as a substitute against Poland in November 1991.
A string of illnesses and injuries prevented Atkinson from ever gaining a clear foothold in the Sunderland side, making only 4 starts in our season in Division One, but he did feature heavily in the following year, including starring in the FA Cup run under Malcolm Crosby in 1992 and playing in the final at Wembley.
He played consistently under both Terry Butcher and Mick Buxton but, despite being part of the side that Peter Reid’s took over and saved from relegation 1995, the return of Paul Bracewell and signing of Steve Agnew spelled the end for his time on Wearside. His final Sunderland appearance was as a substitute against Crystal Palace on December 3rd 1995.
In Spring 1996, Atkinson was loaned to out to Carlisle United for a couple of games and then was transferred to his home-town club, Darlington, in the summer, where he became a club legend with almost 200 appearances over six years. I remember going down to The Feethams to watch him play in the late 90’s, and he was still an impressive talent.
After finishing his career in 2002, was assistant manager of local County Durham sides Newton Aycliffe and Spennymoor, before moving back to Darlo as assistant in 2012 as the club reformed in non-league as Darlington 1888, and then stepping up as manager of the Quakers in 2017.
As a kid, Brian Atkinson was one of my absolute favourite players - he seemed to have the footballing world at his feet and could do things with the ball that were way above others at our level.
But, as with a number of other outrageously gifted Sunderland youngsters in that 1990s era, such as Kieron Brady and Martin Smith, he burned brightly for a relatively short while before succumbing to injury and never reaching his potential at the very top of the game.