I was thinking about players that helped me love football, so naturally, that got me fixed on Leeds United’s former French libero, Olivier Dacourt!
The ‘beautiful game’ played beautifully, that’s all we want to see as football fans, right? From the stands to the sofa, we pledge 90 minutes of our lives each weekend to follow our club for one purpose: to be entertained. The ecstasy of a last minute winner and the agony of crippling defeat to a rival are all part and parcel of what it means to be a football fan.
Therefore, depending on when you first started your relationship with football, there will be certain players that’ll stick in your mind for a lifetime: those that made you fall in love with the game. This is the first in a series of articles that look into the players that sparked my passion for football. Those who made me feel something deeper, more meaningful about the game: hope, courage, elation, valour or even anger and despair. They’re the players you tried to emulate in the playground or on the street. And for me, there was only one place to start….
Like most kids out there, I was brought up to support who my Dad supported, and the old man gave me the gift (sometimes it felt like a curse) of Leeds United. I started going to Elland Road around the turn of the millennium, with O’Leary’s Leeds a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League and in Europe. I vividly remember the Raul, Veron and Rivaldo train coming into town on a European night in the 2000/2001 season, and how the likes of Scholes, Giggs, Henry and Pires tormented the Elland Road faithful on a weekend. However, among all these megastars, it was Leeds United’s number 4 who resonated with me the most.
Olivier Dacourt signed for Leeds on 15th May 2000, for a then-club record fee, and made his debut against TSV 1860 Munich three months later. And while household names like Viduka, Smith, Kewell and Bowyer took the headlines back then, the way Dacourt set about the game has stayed with me for 20 or so years. Known for his midfield bite before coming to Leeds, the Frenchman never shirked a tackle and was subsequently no stranger to a card, as his previous Premier League spell at Everton will corroborate.
He was more than just a ‘hard man’ though. Dacourt had an eye for a pass. He could see things us mere mortals couldn’t. A brilliant footballing brain and a wand of a left foot to go with it. He added experience to the youthful exuberance of the dressing room, which kept them in good steed when it came to some of the more pivotal moments in Leeds white. Because when you think about most of the memorable games from that era, you realise that Olivier Dacourt played a pivotal role in shaping those tales!
Viduka’s four goals against Liverpool in November 2000, Dom Matteo’s header at the San Siro five days later, and the 1-0 victory over Manchester United in 2002, ‘Olly’ went about his business beautifully in midfield; with the grit and determination of a Keane or Vieira, and the silk and finesse of a Figo or Aimar…. I’m being hyperbolic of course, but to a 7-year-old in the stands at LS11, that’s how Olivier Dacourt appeared to me!
His finest hour in a Leeds shirt came in the game that took the club further in the UEFA Champions League than ever before. They were drawn against Deportivo La Coruna in the quarter finals, and the word from the-then Spanish giants (no really, they were!) was that they were pleased to have drawn “the weakest side in the competition”. But then again, they hadn’t been to a packed, loud, hostile Elland Road before, now had they?
Harte, Smith, Ferdinand. 3-0. Dacourt sensational. Rampant on the ball and miserly in defence. Perfection personified.
As the cold light of day has shown, Leeds’ financial troubles and Terry Venables (O’Leary’s successor at Leeds) saying he’d “drive Dacourt to Italy” himself meant that Olly said au revoir in the Summer of 2003, but he’d left his mark at Elland Road. Three goals in 82 appearances doesn’t seem like the stuff of legend, but my younger self didn’t fret over stats. For me, it was simply about who played the game the best, and as far as I could see, Olivier Dacourt is right near the top of that list!